When I was in grade school, my teacher had our class make up aerial `messages in bottles.’ That is to say, we attached notecards to balloons, requesting the finder get in contact with the school to let us know where the helium-filled sphere actually landed. I cannot remember what the purpose was; surely it was not to teach us about tradewinds and weather patterns. It was most likely some tenuous link to geography, or possibly even to learn measures of distance. Now that I’m writing this, I’m almost positive this was the objective, as I also remember having to go out into the school grounds with a buddy and a measuring tape, recording distances between particular trees and sidewalk segments. I don’t remember how far the balloons actually traveled, nor any particular landing spots (except that I do remember that most never left the state), but I recall that my imagination got the best of me in our little Jules Verne-like experiment. I imagined far off places and exotic destinations. I remember particularly the very pretty Danish girl in my class and wondering why she had such a peculiar accent when she was merely from a Mid-Atlantic state. Of course, I was confusing Denmark with Delaware, but I was young and precocious, so I have somewhat of an excuse.
In some rudimentary way, I felt that these balloons tied us in some intangible way to the places they landed, much more so than letters or phone calls. This is how I feel about music today. Music is a shared experience, and there is some kind of connection between listeners here in the US, and one anywhere else in the world due to the emotional power of the art form. For instance, when I listen to Sigur Rós, I am somehow connecting with everyone else in the world that has listened to the same piece of music, even though we might not speak the same language. Little did I know back in grade school that I would make this kind of connection with Gothenburg, Sweden. You see, this is where pop musician Kristoffer Ragnstam is from. Ragnstam is a former drummer whose American debut, Sweet Bills crackles with infectious electricity and further proves that pop is translatable into any landscape.
“Breakfast by the Mattress,” the first proper song from the album, is a hook-laden juggernaut, along the lines of French artists Phoenix, or Ragnstam’s countrywoman, Annie. My brother couldn’t get “Chewing Gum” out of his head for months, and in fact still can’t get rid of it on occasion. “Man Overboard” will have listeners guessing at Ragnstam’s penchant for hip-hop thanks to the conversational style and steady bass beats. “Lonely Lane” and “#1 Money Hunter” continue with the undeniable hooks and genre-blending styles, a la Beck. The more serene title track is another winner thanks to some gifted female backup vocals. “Born as a Lion” brings back some of the hip-hop feel, and adds an eerie whispering interlude reminiscent, if only slightly, to Sage Francis. Several of the songs in the latter half of the album have a funkier edge, showing us that Sweden has indeed been exposed to Prince, or at least Midnite Vultures. “Dr. Give the World a Smile is the perfect example of this style. “Kayla” ends the album on another quiet note, like Sondre Lerche sitting in with Belle & Sebastian.
In the world of baseball, one of my other passions, the catcher is considered to be the smartest man on the field. Why? Because he has to orchestrate the action of the ballgame, starting with the pitcher, and by extension, the playmaking of the rest of the defense. Maybe, thanks to Ragnstam, we are learning that the drummer is really the brains behind most bands. Of course, this goes against the myriad of great drummer jokes out there, such as “What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians? The drummer.” Well, if that’s true, then Ragnstam is the exception to the rule. Sweden has always been on the pop landscape thanks to ABBA, the Cardigans and more recent acts such as Stina Nordenstam, the Hives and the Concretes. So, in a way, our musical balloons had landed, but like Jello, there’s always room for more balloons.