My Musical Puzzle

A few years ago, I noticed that much of my musical likes could be compartmentalized as Swedish rock. Bands like the Cardigans, The Soundtrack of our Lives, The Hives, and the (International) Noise Conspiracy occupied a definitive niche in my collection: music with roots in ’60s pop, classic rock, soul, punk, and garage rock. The deep basslines, howling vocals (except the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, whose sweet notes matured into a Sheryl Crow-like growl), searing guitar licks, and soulful organ notes tickle my earholes like few others. And I wondered why that was.

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I’ve mapped out my musical inspirations in the past, with my parents filling the house with music from groups as diverse as Steely Dan to Gladys Knight and the Pips and everything in-between. Among their dozens of albums and 45s, I latched onto the Jackson 5 as my group, and elementary-school-aged me scoured record stacks for LPs that were nearly 20 years past their prime.

The reasons were plenty: Michael’s vocals were steeped in emotion well past his preteen age; Jermaine’s basswork hit notes that were akin to dancing stair steps; Tito’s blues-inspired guitar strumming often crossed into a buzzy, distorted weapon of choice; and when the organ was employed, the keys provided underlying soul that could reanimate Joseph Stalin’s preserved body.

The melodies are infectious, and they are still burned in my brain today. Songs like “Feelin’ Alright” capture that joy like lightning in a bottle or Goku from Dragon Ball Z going to town on some food*:

I kept up my love of the J5 even when it may have been considered uncool–especially my teen years–but my ears sought out new sounds. This led to discovering Green Day, my gateway into pop-punk and punk rock. Years of MTV (especially 120 Minutes) and The Box (remember THAT channel) fed me a steady stream of new bands–from the aforementioned Cardigans to Australian pop-punk rockers The Living End. One of the various groups had this super-minor hit back in 2001, and while I didn’t know their name, the controlled chaos in their music stuck with me:

All of those qualities that made me love the Jackson 5 are present in the music of the (International) Noise Conspiracy, but wouldn’t think so at first glance. They’re white! They’re punk rockers! They say English words funny! But those buzzing guitars, deep bass lines, hair-raising keyboards and ear-splitting lead vocals were distilled in a new form, and daddy needed a taste.

(International) Noise Conspiracy

It is not a coincidence that many Swedish artists instill R&B and soul in their work; popular American music, including R&B and soul, had made its way across the Atlantic Ocean to most of Europe (and maybe even all of it!) for decades. But Sweden had a special fascination with black music and culture–the latter seen in interviews of and features on Black Power visionaries (from Angela Davis to Dr. Martin Luther King) by Swedish journalists. The subject matter and culture may have been exotic to a lily-white country, but that fusion of Swedish perspective and black culture, seen most notably in the documentary the Black Power Mixtape, featured artists like Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli waxing poetic about the American revolution and its influences mixed with little-seen interviews with Black Power representatives. While representation of people of African descent in Sweden continues to be slim-to-none, the artistic endeavors continue to live on.

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I finally made the connection in my musical past and the memory gaps over the past few years. I tracked down the (International) Noise Conspiracy song and collected their discography, continued expanding my musical horizons via music websites like Pitchfork and Allmusic and music blogs, and snatched up Jackson 5 re-releases and unearthed material. The latter became important a few days ago: for Christmas, my mom bought me the J5 boxset Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls, a 2-disc collection of unreleased songs, a lovely book filled with photos, and a vinyl 45 album of two songs from the set.

Among the songs was a studio version of “Feelin’ Alright,” something I thought I would never hear. The only way I knew of the song was a live performance from the album Goin’ Back to Indiana. The studio release lacked the backing organs of the concert version, which led me to cue up my MP3 player to hear the live song. And all the pieces fell into place: those vocals, guitars, bass and organs were all there, forming a musical ouroboros with the Swedish rock I loved with the soul music I grew up on.

Listening to the song in the gym made the workout fly by, and I would imagine that onlookers wondered why I was happily bopping along on the recumbent bike instead of doggedly peddling and sweating. It’s because I felt enlightened, my past and present making sense, my future looking bright. And that’s all I have ever known of and expected from music.

* The Dragon Ball Z reference is for my brother, Steve.

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