Tangled Up in Blue

The only song that made me cry this year was a cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun.” There’s something cruel about stripping the classic rock song of its menace and symbolism — this was, remember, the last tune the Sex Pistols mangled together onstage before imploding in ’78 — and killing it softly, only to resurrect it anew as a small and beautiful ballad. And there’s something sweet in that this act of heresy is accomplished with only a piano, a harmonica, and gravelly vocals by two Swedish guys, Martin Hederos and Mattias Hellberg, who during the past three years have put out two records and an EP reworking the saddest songs Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones ever wrote.

In the U.S. the duo are obscure but embraced by a small coterie of musicians like Brendan Benson and Ryan Adams, the latter having handpicked Hederos & Hellberg as the opening act for his 2002 Euro tour. The pair have already known success with some of the best outfits their native Sweden can claim: Hederos makes the groovy organ noises that propel the guitar-driven psych-pop of The Soundtrack of Our Lives; Hellberg is a one-time guitarist with the hell-raisin’ Hellacopters and the equally rockin’ Diamond Dogs.

So the question is, why would they take it upon themselves to turn Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” into exquisite orgies of Scandinavian melancholy?

“People really liked it, and we felt really good doing it,” says Hederos, the piano-, glockenspiel- and organ-playing half of the duo. “Life can be so stressful, and this was our little private room where we ran and played. To allow yourself to be sentimental and soft is quite brave. We’re not the only ones who ever did it, but we really got addicted.”

Despite acclaim in Europe, and in Sweden, where their 2000 self-titled debut was ranked third-best record of the year by a poll of 60 local publications, Hederos & Hellberg won’t play together for a while, or possibly ever again. That’s because The Soundtrack of Our Lives was scooped up last year by U.S. major Universal, with big plans to break America well and proper. For the Soundtrack people, that has meant “dropping everything except families” to embark upon an intense touring blitz through the U.S. and Europe for the better part of 2003, a move that pushed the Hederos & Hellberg project onto the back burner.

“We had regrets that we had to quit, but you can’t deal with two international careers at the same time,” Hederos says with a little weariness. “I’ve been waiting for 10 years to play outside Scandinavia, and then it happened — for both bands!”

What’s ironic for him and Hellberg is also bad news for people who appreciate pop music that’s moving on conceptual, musical and emotional levels. The duo cover songs that common wisdom would leave uncovered, but they pull it off in a fresh and meaningful way. There’s the Dylan standard “You’re a Big Girl Now,” the Stones’ kindhearted “Shine a Light,” Kris Kristofferson’s bittersweet “Epitaph (Black & Blue),” all the more guileless after the Hederos & Hellberg treatment, the tempos slowed down, the despair rendered delicious. That there’s nothing calculated about it owes to the outfit’s having evolved from late-night sessions during which these two longtime friends from western Sweden’s Karlstad got together to share a bottle of wine and try the songs they liked on the piano.

“We started off with this jazz-punk sensibility, and we aspired to do our parents’ favorites,” says Hederos, explaining that the duo’s pared-down piano & vocals approach was inspired by Jan Johansson, a musician who reworked traditional Swedish folk songs into mellow jazz arrangements in the ’60s.

“The songs we pick are not obvious choices,” he says. “And that’s not snobbery, it’s because there has to be space in the audience’s minds for new interpretations. It’d be really hard to do something with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ People would think we’re being ironic.”

The irony isn’t missed. Hederos plays the piano without flashy accents. He’s a classically trained musician who banged out a lot of jazz in his youth, and his relationship with the instrument is intimate but not suffocating; Hellberg’s voice strains a bit, like an achy joint. The graceful understatement of the enterprise is such that the songs — including six original tracks — form the perfect backdrop to a day you want to spend alone and moody, waiting for the darkness to descend.

Hederos & Hellberg records are available at www.hotstuff.se, www.skivhugget.se and www.bengans.se; a limited selection is available at www.amazon.com.

The Soundtrack of Our Lives play at the Coachella Festival on Sunday, April 27.


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