Whatever we might think of the execution, we have got to admire the strategy for launching Teddybears (neé Teddybears STHLM) in the US, which Atlantic/Big Beat Records is doing with the release of Soft Machine.
The Swedish group has been around for yonks, starting off, as the oft-told story goes, as an extreme death metal band. (Teddybears STHLM was an ironic name, you see. Well, not the "Stockholm" part, which is deadly serious.) It was only with their third Swedish album, Rock 'n' Roll Highschool, released in 2000, that the band adopted their current electronic-big beat-ragga-hip-hop-pop sound, which they continued and sharpened on their 2004 album Fresh!. In certain circles, the 'Bears may have gotten even more famous in 2005, when the brothers in the band, Klas Åhlund and Joakim Åhlund, co-wrote and produced most of Robyn's album.
The strategy for pushing the 'Bears in the US is, in some ways, not entirely novel. First, the record company has gotten them to drop the "STHLM" suffix, which had always been as awkward as the cover of Moon Safari announcing that it was recorded by "Air: French Band" anyway. Second, instead of releasing either Rock 'n' Roll Highschool or Fresh! in their entirety, Soft Machine is, instead, largely a compilation of the best moments from both. A time-tested method (although for some reason the bands that spring most immediately to my mind as having tried this are Aqualung and Mandalay).
But, quite smartly (at least in theory), the 'Bears have also chosen to re-record some of these greatest hits, with cannily chosen (at least in theory) new vocalists. Thus, Iggy Pop sings the new version of "Punkrocker" (originally from Rock 'n' Roll Highschool); even more prominently, since it has been a free iTunes download of the week, "Yours To Keep" (from that same album, where it was originally performed by a 'Bear-wife, Paola), appears on Soft Machine in two reworked editions. One features Neneh Cherry (whose brother Eagle-Eye has also guest-starred on a Teddybears track) on main vocals, backed by Annie, while another version (a hidden track on the album) simply has the latter. Sensible choices: a rock icon (who is, let us say, not impossible to snag); a former hip-hop/pop star (and a fellow Swede at that) who, almost twenty years after "Buffalo Stance," still has everybody's goodwill; and one of last year's musical It girls, who can still make bloggers sit up and take notice.
But while the marketing strategy is astute, the execution, as I implied isn't totally perfect. In terms of the songs the band has chosen for the American compilation, there are only a few things to fault. Such as: why was "Hey Boy" (from Fresh!, with vocals by Swingfly, who's also the rapper on Robyn's "Curriculum Vitae") -- which would have been the perfect opening track for Soft Machine that even frat boys will love ("So just sit back and enjoy your motherfuckin' self before I kick your fuckin' ass!") -- left off in favor of obvious fillers like "Alma" or "Magic Kraut"? I'm sure I don't know.
But more dissatisfying are the reworkings. "Punkrocker" is the lesser of the two missteps; even if Iggy Pop is in poor bite-less voice (not just when compared to his heyday, but even when put up against, say, his vocals on some of Peaches' recent stuff), at least there is something poetic and macabrely funny about hearing him sing lines like, "I see you stagger on the street/You can't stay on your feet." (Especially when you notice that you can pretty much sing the melody of "Yours To Keep," supposedly a sweet mid-tempo ballad, over the same backing.) But "Yours To Keep" has clearly not been improved by either Neneh Cherry and/or Annie, as Jessica over at Into The Groove has also pointed out. Much as it pains me to say it, Neneh's voice is so scratchy that, when I first heard the new version, I thought it was the male Teddybears themselves singing, and I kept waiting for the mellifluous Neneh I know to appear. Further, the formerly electro track has been rearranged to sound tougher, rockier, like it's some misguided cousin of "Since U Been Gone." This is perhaps the right move for the US market, but one of the lovely things about the original version is the way Paola's sweet, high-pitched voice makes us both like and pity her for her optimistic obliviousness: "We can drive around with the top down/Stereo turned up loud with the phat sound/Cause I'm yours to keep if you want to/But I hear that you want to ditch me/But you know I'm not such a bad seed." In Neneh's version, all of that -- because of her rougher voice, and the tougher production -- is lacking. Annie's helium voice is much closer to Paola's, but her version of "Yours To Keep" on Soft Machine is set to a dirty, grinding remix that makes her lines sound more vacuously air-headed ("you can sit and watch as my hair grows..."), than sweet and cute.
At least many of the other tracks -- "Little Stereo," "Throw Your Hands Up," "Automatic Lover" -- have not been severely refried for the US release. One of the group's most recognizable tracks, "Cobrastyle" likewise appears in its original recipe (featuring Mad Cobra) on Soft Machine -- although, intriguingly enough, the band has done a new version. Retitled "Girliestyle," the crispy re-take features Robyn and can be found on the soundtrack of the Swedish movie Säg Att Du Älskar Mig (whose plot an imdb user hilariously described as predictable, because "Alcohol + Sex and/or Rape + teenager = typical Swedish." No kidding; doesn't that equation capture the essence of every Bergman movie?). On "Girliestyle," the production goes in the other direction: the ragga track has been replaced by a gurgling electro backing, and Robyn does her by now patented mild boastin-toastin' over the top. I wouldn't say that this improves on Mad Cobra's bouncily insane original, but it would have made more sense to also include Robyn's version on the US album: not only because she, like Annie, is an It girl whose participation in Soft Machine would have been logical and attention-grabbing, but because her treatment gives the original an interesting shading in ways that Iggy, Neneh, and Annie (and the 'Bears) don't quite manage to.