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Thursday, July 28, 2005 02:04 pm

A bit of a pill

Stina Noderstam's so good, you'll forget she's annoying

Stina Nordenstam The World Is Saved (V2)

According to the press release for The World Is Saved, Stina Nordenstam’s sixth CD, “This is some of the most hopeful music Stina Nordenstam has ever recorded.” In a breathtaking feat of pretentiousness, the flackery is formatted as free verse, concluding with these cringe-inducing, grammar-flouting lines: “Listening to her music, reading her lyrics/Stina Nordenstam dares to be this raw and complicated/This human./And still without forgetting the importance of beauty.” Despite the use of the third person, the bio was obviously written by Nordenstam herself (because no one, not even a major-label executive, would be dumb enough to pay for it). A bit of advice to Ms. Nordenstam: Stifle the McKuenisms and stick to being the camera-shy, tour-averse, studio-bound enigma that you are. You earned your mystique with all those years of wearing weird wigs and blowing off reporters and the Chemical Brothers; why squander your cred now by yapping about your humanity?

Fortunately, the Swedish chanteuse is a much better musician than she is a self-publicist. Although calling these moody symphonic ballads “hopeful” is an overstatement, they’re less angst-ridden than her usual fare, especially if you focus on their warm, organic textures and languid vocal melodies instead of their lyrics, which are “hopeful” only by August Strindberg standards. Like so many Scandinavian cult figures (hi, Björk!), Nordenstam is not only a mope but also a pathological contrarian. Her last full-length, This Is Stina Nordenstam, was a glossy cross-continental affair, buffed to perfection by hotshot producers Tchad Black and Mitchell Froom; it might have been dismissed as a sellout in some circles, if only it had sold. Undeterred, the predictably unpredictable artiste went home to Stockholm to write and record its follow-up, enlisting various Swedish jazz and classical musicians to make a modest little album about global salvation.

The World Is Saved sounds at once voluptuous and constrained, its trumpets, woodwinds, violins, and guitars undercut with edgy electronics, processed drums, and disorienting pauses. On the flamenco-flavored opening track, “Get On With Your Life,” piano, clarinet, and ethereal multitracked vocals emerge and disappear in a fog of synths. Late-Romantic violin flourishes and random knocks and thuds keep the studiously quiet “I’m Staring Out the World” from subsiding into silence. “From Cayman Islands With Love” pits a narcotic horn section against dark and clattery percussion while Nordenstam frets, in her trademark cutie-pie warble, “I’m on a beach, the only one around who can’t enjoy the heat/I can’t believe I paid for this, there’s nothing here I need.” She’s a bit of a pill, our Stina — but in a hopeful, human, raw, and complicated way, without forgetting the importance of beauty.

Too prickly for the pop crowd, too polished for the indie-rockers, Brendan Benson writes songs that sound as if they ought to be hits — but never are. This injustice flummoxes the critics, who get so worked up on his behalf that they go into hyperbolic overdrive, spitting out reckless comparisons with the Big Bs: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Big Star. Thrust into the middle of the blessed triumvirate, Benson can’t help but fall short, but that doesn’t make his unpopular power-pop any less delightful. His third CD, The Alternative to Love, crackles with fuzzy hooks and fizzy melodies. All jangle and chime, Benson’s brand of pristine popcraft stopped filling stadiums a couple of decades ago, but, at least in a just world, it will never go out of style.

Brendan Benson performs at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room (6504 Delmar Blvd., in St. Louis) on Wednesday, Aug. 3.

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