Whaling In The '90s

Whale reinterpret '90s alternative-rock styles -- from hip-hop to sonic collage -- in a fresh and interesting way.

Swedish bands seem to have a knack for reinterpreting popular music. It

must be so cold there in the winter that local musicians have little option

but to turn on the radio and listen to some American alternative music and

then start playing it their own way. Sometimes what they come up with is

ironic, as in the Cardigans' bewildering cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron

Man," and sometimes it's something fresh and interesting, like Whale's

All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones.

The Swedish group Whale got their first 15 minutes of fame after Beavis and

Butthead snickered over lead singer Cia Soro's performance, complete with

braces and prepubescent sexuality, in the band's video for

"Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe." But that was a few years ago, and since then Whale

have changed their lineup and their sound. No longer a three-piece groove

unit, Whale are now a quintet, and their sound is noticeably denser.

All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones, the band's sophomore

album, features everything from the hip-hop beats and sonic-collage work of

his royal mumbleness, Beck, to the vocal harmonies and over-driven guitar

riffage of the Breeders. This places Disco Dance firmly in the

growing category of albums that genre-hop their way onto college radio and

into twentysomethings' CD-players. (See also: the Beastie Boys, Jon Spencer

Blues Explosion, Tricky and Cibo Matto.)

From its very first turntable-scratches, the opening track, "Crying at

Airports," delivers the album's heaviest hip-hop beats, plus some agile

rapping by guest artist Cream, from the group Addis Black Widow. If I were in

Whale, I might suggest that they give up the whole band thing and simply put

together some beats for Cream to rhyme over. The hip-hop is so thick on

this track that you could cut it with a knife, and when you combine it with

Cream's outstanding rap performance, the song is definitely the album

highlight.

"Deliver the Juice," on the other hand, features more conventional

guitar-playing, and Cia Soro's vocals immediately bring to mind the

melodies of

the Breeders. The somewhat corny riff and the strange electronic noises

heard in the background are also reminiscent of Beck or Cibo Matto.

Disco Dance displays a real grasp of dynamics. The album is, at

times, loud and groove-heavy enough for a dance party and, at other times,

mellow enough to demand headphones and a prone listening-position. "Go

Where You're Feeling Free" has the sort of dreamy psychedelic-guitar and

vocal melody you might expect to hear at a Phish show, except that the

subdued musicianship is a bit more relaxed than the in-your-face virtuosity

of Phish.

What's unusual is that not only does the band jump all over the stylistic

board -- from hip-hop to garage-rock to freewheeling wah-wah funk and

back to slow acoustic ballads -- but it also performs all of these types

of music equally well.

Once in a while, Whale even stumble onto something completely new. "Into the

Strobe" is the sleeper of the album. Making very little impression on the

first few listens, the combination of acoustic-guitar strumming, swirling

electronic noise and a subtle and mesmerizing vocal harmony eventually made

me a believer.

It all adds up to something of a sonic textbook on '90s alternative music,

from turntable scratching and '90s-centric guitar effects to slices of

every major musical trend of the decade (except for swing, which apparently

hasn't made it over to Sweden yet).

If you're looking for a crash course on the musical history of the '90s,

Whale are your band. And if you're already a graduate of the Beck School of

Music, you can do worse than hitting up Whale for a quickie refresher-class

or two.