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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Passion and sweat, by way of Sweden

March 19, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

2002 was the year Sweden broke. The Hives blasted their way onto MTV with their manic garage rock assault. Sahara Hotnights became its female counterpart. Hoary orchestral neo-proggers the Soundtrack of Our Lives drew raves from critics.

Now here comes the newest wave of the Swedish invasion. But this time around they're mostly new-wavers, power-poppers, modern-rockers -- with even a little bit of very compelling country rock. The only thing they have in common is an urgent, over-the-top passion.

For the second year running, the Swedish consulates general of L.A. and New York have sponsored a U.S. mini-tour featuring the country's hottest pop exports. At Spaceland on Sunday, a thin crowd witnessed the arrival of Teenage Idols, whose shirt-drenching workout was a warning that these bands didn't come to croon. The standouts of the evening, though, were Prime Sth, with a huge if slightly dated mid-'90s grunge sound, and the endearing User, whose super-cute and animated female singer made them the Swedish analogue to Avril Lavigne or No Doubt.

Heavy buzz attended Monday's show at the Troubadour because of the Sounds, who have signed with L.A.'s New Line Records. The sexy blond swagger of charismatic singer Maja Ivarsson has drawn comparisons to Blondie's Deborah Harry, and the music is a throwback to such early-'80s L.A. new wave bands as the Motels. (Ex-Blondie members Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante were on hand to check on their legacy.)

The $1,000 Playboys were the surprise of the evening, with a full country-rock sound a la the Band, complete with fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel and Southern accents. The most compelling performance came from the Mo, a guitar- and keyboard-driven quartet with English '80s roots that sounded perfectly contemporary.

The one criticism to be shared among all the bands is that they are brilliant stylists, with only very subtle innovation. But they're true believers in rock 'n' roll transcendence, and that infectious energy is something you just can't fake.

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