While on a drive in my hometown recently, I discovered that something truly remarkable had happened to the radio. Well, oldies radio. My trusted provider of decades-old Brill Building pop and doo-wop one-hit wonders had decided that oldies music had simply become, too old. Worse yet, the torch had been passed on to radio real-estate extraordinaire Pink Floyd, who seemed content to gloat, “The time is gone / The song is over.” Oh, how right they were!
When my initial denial and subsequent disgust began to fade, I lamented the loss of this nostalgic staple of my youth. As a child, my parents always chose “Oldies 104.1” in the car, and this music quickly became the de facto backtrack to all my backseat adventures. Road trips aside, a genuine fondness for that characteristic precious pop and soulful singing had grown over the years, usually with each hopeless crush and lost love. Though romance has always been a frequent theme in music, few modern artists manage to capture the very essence with such simple sincerity and unabashed swooning as was commonplace in the early 1960s. Admittedly, this explains my adoration for retro-pop balladeers such as Camera Obscura, Lucky Soul, and Irene. Nonetheless, there exists a noticeable dearth of current musicians able to capture that classic ‘60s sound. Fortunately, Sambassadeur’s new LP European allows me to add another name to that list.
Certainly no stranger to sentimental songs, Sambassadeur delivers an emotional gem with European. Always improving, they have evolved steadily since their self-titled debut, a stripped-down lo-fi experiment that still managed to garner critical praise. Although thoughtful lyrics and memorable motifs from the first LP remain, European more closely resembles the band’s second album, Migration, which marked a shift in artistic focus from melody to mood. Whereas Sambassadeur’s first album seemed to emulate the simple chansons of French pop great, Serge Gainsbourg (Fans will know their name originates from his song “Les Sambassadeurs.”), European seeks to capture that quintessential American sound from the 1960s: wall of sound, prominent orchestras, and bold bass lines. The album embodies this spirit and sound so well, I felt compelled to verify that Phil Spector and Brian Wilson didn’t actually have a hand in its production.
The first track “Stranded” may initially throw the listener off-guard, with a solitary piano playing enough major chord flourishes and sappy suspensions to win Whitney Houston another Grammy in 1986. Luckily, this saccharine solo is brief, serving only to ready the listener for their journey back in time. Within half a minute, the tempo quickens and a sweeping melody supported by strings, guitar, and bass unfolds, accompanied by a now-jaunty piano. Our arrival couldn’t feel any better than this! Although this track may not be the most memorable or tear-inducing on the album, it does serve as a good introduction, functioning as an amalgam of the remaining 8 songs.
Perhaps equally able to serve as album opener, “Days” is boisterous, uplifting, and features a notable piano/violin melodic interplay that is one of the catchiest in modern pop. Decidedly retro, it sounds shockingly similar to “Baby, I love you” by The Ronettes, or at least the first 30 seconds do. Despite this, Anna Persson’s vocals represent a more somber side, proclaiming “I happen to know where the day wind is blowing / A place to go when people say you’re way too blue / If you want to go you must keep them from knowing / Loneliness is something you’re accustomed to.” This song seems to encompass the essence of European best – a collection of infectious oldies melodies juxtaposed with present-day lyrical introspection and ruminations on love.
To appreciate the album solely as an oldies re-hash would be unfortunate, as several tracks showcase Sambassadeur’s tremendous versatility at eliciting myriad emotions. For example, on the ballad “Forward is All,” instrumental complexity is avoided in order to create a lush, dream-like serenity that serves to better highlight Persson’s haunting, yet captivating voice. In contrast, instrumental interlude “A Remote View” abandons vocals entirely for the subdued and gentle feel of a delicately picked guitar. Admittedly, the song becomes nearly church-like with its hymnal chords, though it manages to successfully avoid that cliche Christmas “cheese” with impeccable phrasing and intrinsic sincerity. If anything, it highlights Sambassadeur’s noteworthy ability to precisely create a musical aesthetic that conveys both mood and meaning – persistent pedal points, layered strings, and spot-on reverb effectively provide both vintage appeal and ethereal wonder.
Despite earlier successes, European definitively solidifies Sambassadeur as a paragon of Swedish pop: sweet but not sappy, bold yet beautiful, and emotionally eclectic without becoming melodramatic. Masters of musical atmosphere, Sambassadeur does more than just sing about love, hope, and sadness – they make certain that even the biggest cynic will feel it. In addition, they have capitalized on their old-fashioned sound to carve out a unique niche among notable Labrador mainstays such as the Acid House Kings, The Legends, and Pelle Carlberg, among others. Furthermore, Sambassadeur’s compositional plasticity, as evidenced on all three LPs, ensures that listeners will be wistful but never weary for years to come. Unfortunately for most fans, the title may also be seen as an ironic reminder of Sambassadeur’s almost exclusive Scandinavian presence, due to guitarist Joachim Lackberg’s fear of flying. Maybe somebody should tell him that he can still cross the Atlantic on a ship, oldies-style.