How Swede It Is

I’ve always had an affinity for Swedish things. My Scandophilia (a word?) is second only to my Anglophilia when it comes to music, and some of my favorite hockey players through the years have also been Swedes. The New York Rangers were among the first to import Swedes into their lineup in the Seventies, with Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. Borje Salming, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was probably the first big-name Swede in the NHL and the first named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but Nilsson and Hedberg were part of that first wave of smooth, highly-skilled Swedes that started in earnest in about 1978. (Hedberg is currently the head European scout for the Rangers.) The second wave, in the ‘80s, brought one of my absolute favorite Rangers of all time, Jan Erixon, whose son Tim – who was actually born in New York when Jan was a Ranger – was also a Ranger for a very brief time and is now with the Penguins. Of course, since 2005 we have been blessed to have the King, Henrik Lundqvist, on our roster. His teammates joke that he’s “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (referencing the over-the-top Dos XX spokes-icon). Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy tends to add a “[SWOON]” when writing about some typically superlative Lundqvist activity, be it a mind-bending save or a striking black-and-white photo spread of Henrik in his underwear shilling for his brand Bread and Boxers. The man is an amazing athlete, a humanitarian, and singularly gorgeous (although he is Henrik’s identical twin, Joel Lundqvist somehow lacks his brother’s sparkle). Even Mike Milbury, who rarely has a nice word to say about anyone, is always gushing about Henrik’s good looks and also his prodigious talent.

But handsome and skilled hockey players aren’t the only bounties from Sweden. After the UK and (arguably) the US, my favorite music comes from north of 50 degrees latitude. From the grandparents of Swedish pop music, Abba, and Blue Swede (with jaw-droppingly stunning lead singer Björn Skifs [what a name!], who informed my taste in men for many, many years despite favoring Robin Hood-esque doublets and stretch pants) in the 1970s, to the glamorous Roxette in the 1990s (whose enduring ballad “Listen to your Heart” was covered by Belgian dance group DHT as recently as 2005), to the ubiquitous Ace of Base’s “The Sign” in the ‘90s, to the current crop of fantastic Swedes, Danes and Norwegians (more on those in a minute) that appear prominently on Passport Approved’s weekly playlists, Scandinavian performers have been at the forefront of producing charming, catchy and eminently listenable pop music. And even though they’re not Scandinavian, let’s throw in Finns and Icelanders (is that what you call folks from Iceland?) for good measure.

My beloved Passport Approved features Scandinavian artists prominently on its weekly playlists. A sampling of recent artists, all of which are worth checking out  (if you CAN, that is, given the unavailability of certain music from unsigned artists, as I complained about in my 6/2 blog post [“Great Expectations”]): Matt Cronert, Mathias Melo and Ruh from Sweden; the duo Alfred Hall from Norway; Goblins and JJ (who has a unique deep, resonant voice that touches you to your soul and is currently unavailable for download on U.S. iTunes) from Denmark; ruby-throated Katéa from Finland (check out the anthemic “That Ain’t Love” for an intro to her work, which, as I discovered today, actually IS currently available for download on iTunes); and Kaleo, whose “All the Pretty Girls” is reminiscent of Bon Iver but carries a shimmery Icelandic sheen. Twenty-two-year-old Ásgeir is another impressive Icelandic artist; the lyrics to the songs on his recent album In the Silence were written by his father, an Icelandic poet, and translated into English with the help of American ex-pat songwriter John Grant.

My friend Carl is a Swedish lawyer but I think he would much rather be a DJ, following in the shoes of top (Swedish) DJs and producers like Tiesto, Avicii, Teddybears and Swedish House Mafia. He always shares music with me via Spotify but I treasure the Swedish pop and rock collections he made for me when we discovered our shared love of music. They feature artists like Tough Alliance, Kent, the Mary Onettes and Olle Ljungström (I actually bought one of his CDs in Carl’s favorite record store when I was in Stockholm), as well as Swedish performers who’ve made some inroads into the North American music scene, like Peter, Bjorn and John, the Caesars, Jens Lekman, Lykke Li, the Hives, the Shout Out Louds and El Perro del Mar.

One of my all-time favorite Swedish bands is the Sounds, whose song “Living in America” has the complete opposite message of James Browns’ “Living in America” (or any patriotic country songs with a similar name), sort of more along the lines of Black 47’s “Livin’ in America”, where young folks from other nations may appreciate the USA for certain things but are glad to NOT be American. It was recently used as the theme song for a very silly sitcom called “Welcome to Sweden”, which was executive produced by Amy Poehler as a vehicle for her wide-eyed brother Greg, a former lawyer who moved to Sweden to live with his girlfriend, and features classy Swedish actress Lena Olin and her impressive cheekbones. I believe it’s coming back to American TV this month. I confess I thought it tried a little too hard to be funny, but maybe it will find its footing in Season Two. A lot of it is in Swedish with English subtitles, and it’s actually shown in Sweden with Swedish subtitles for the English-language parts, although most Swedish folks speak English quite well. In fact, when we visited Sweden, we had no problem watching a marathon of the UK version of “Jackass” on TV.

My dream vacation to Scandinavia (well, we never made it to Norway, but Denmark and Sweden, anyway) became a reality in the summer of 2009, and it was made even better by an opportunity to visit my friend Carl and his family. He was kind enough to let us stay in his centrally located apartment in the city, and then entertained us at his family’s vacation home on an island in the Archipelago, an idyllic grouping of green, untamed islands off the eastern coast only accessible by boat.

All in all, our trip to Denmark and Sweden was probably the best vacation I ever had. It was as I’d always imagined it would be: the people were good-looking, the systems worked, there was natural and manmade beauty at every turn. Even the weather cooperated (it was the first two weeks of July, after all, which are probably the best two weeks of the year weather-wise), and the sunsets were breathtaking, even though it never got completely dark at night.

I have found the Swedish people I have met to be exceedingly polite, unpretentiously bright and very droll, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t also find many of them to be extremely attractive! When we were on the train from Gothenburg to Stockholm, there was a derailment and everyone had to get off the train and wait for a new one to come. Coming from New York, I was so impressed by how calm and even-tempered the local residents were when faced with this travel inconvenience. No one lost their temper, or yelled, or threw things like they probably would in NYC. Folks were eager to help the non-Swedish speakers when the explanations and instructions came over the loudspeakers. Even Swedish dogs – which are allowed everywhere – seem to be happy and well-behaved!

Sweden has so much more to offer than IKEA and little savory meatballs!

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