A few weeks ago I heard an Abba-esque song on the radio and was intrigued to learn it was performed by the Benny Andersson Band (known as Benny Andersson Orkester in Sweden) and the song, "Story of a Heart", was written by Andersson and his long time songwriting partner and former Abba bandmate, Bjorn Ulvaeus.
I have loved Abba for 35 years and upon hearing the Benny Andersson Band had an album out, I decided I definitely wanted to hear some more from them.
What I didn't know when I got this album was the fact that "Story of a Heart" is easily the most commercial track.
Luckily for me, I am happy to listen to instrumental folk music - for many years my father ran a folk club in a local pub when I was a child and as a result I grew up hearing folk music from an early age. He also organised events I was able to attend as a teenager and I thoroughly enjoyed these as a way to see live music played well up close and personal.
However if you are an Abba fan expecting the perfect pop that the title track hints at, this really isn't for you.
The instruments which dominate through this album are the piano and the accordion, the saxophone and the flute, and the violin and viola. Others are used obviously, but you hear these the clearest.
Andersson has always been an accomplished keyboard player. I recently wrote a review of Abba's 1975 eponomously titled album and commented on his ability to play with both flair and feeling - and in the intervening years that ability hasn't deserted him.
The music isn't just folk inspired - you can hear jazz, polka, swing and even the circus in some of the music - for example "Cirkus Finemang" is most evocative of the big top, beginning with a low tuba and then when the rest of the band kicks in you can almost see the animals, the acrobats and the clowns moving around the ring.
Andersson also references the Alps and Scotland in "Tyrolean Schottische" - a piece which begins with his accordion playing taking you to the mountains of Austria, but then travelling to the highlands of Scotland with a distinctly celtic sound. The album opens with a piece called "Glasgow Boogie", which also references celtic folk music well.
Both of these pieces are enjoyable but one cannot help but think they would work better in a live setting - in fact I suspect most of this music would work better live, particularly in relatively small venues where you can get up dance.
Other songs reveal different influences and styles - for instance "Bed of Roses" and "Jehu" remind me of music I heard accompanying silent films back in the days when I was a film student and regularly watched them. Both are piano led but put you in mind of a situation - for instance "Jehu" is evocative of the kind of frantic chase Harold Lloyd did so well in his silent films. Both are predominantly piano pieces, with strings to add to the mood.
"Story of a Heart" features vocals by Swedish singer Helen Sjoholm and it is unmistakably written by Andersson and Ulvaeus. Sjoholm has a lovely voice but I find it a little "stagey" in places, but overall it works and is reminiscent in places of Frida's dulcet tones. The song has a driving chorus and very Abbaesque bridge with Andersson's keyboards the perfect counterpoint to Sjoholm's voice here...something he did so many times with Abba.
Sjoholm features on three more songs on the album, none of which are as strong as the title track. "You Are My Man" is reminiscent in places of "I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do", despite the country feel the slide guitar gives it. When the chorus kicks in with saxophones however, you can hear the similarities between the Abba song, despite the almost swing style of the song overall. "If This is Our Last Dance" gives Sjoholm the chance to be sultry on a song which evokes the 1920s nicely, particularly with the saxophone that accompanies her.
The other vocalist featured on this album is Tommy Korberg, who sang on the "Chess" concept album. I loved Korberg's voice on "Chess" but here it seems more theatrical than before and I also suspect time could have been kinder to his vocal chords, particularly on the song "Fait Accompli", a song which is very wordy and theatrical, yet somehow doesn't suit this theatrical of singers.
Both Korberg and Sjoholm sing together on "The Stars", a swing song, and their vocals seem more natural here.
If you are an Abba fan and think you will be getting more of Abba with this album, then you will be disappointed.
Only the title track is on that level, but the musical talent of Andersson and his band make this an enjoyable listen, particularly if you are the sort of person who is open to listening to lots of different types of music, particularly styles from the past. For example "Birthday Waltz for Mona" is a waltz, but certainly not a sedate one, and "Jehu" is a polka piece.
I actually surprised myself at how much I enjoyed the instrumental pieces - for example on "Trolska", a piano led piece, I really enjoyed how Andersson was able to capture melancholy so well...although I would add that I could hear that same sadness conveyed in his keyboards on some of Abba's songs too.
I find the songs are pleasant enough, but the vocals are just a little too staid for me - I kept wishing for something just a little less restrained - there's no denying that Korberg and Sjoholm are great technical singers but a little more emotion would have been nice.
Overall this is an album probably for fans only - for they are the ones who will understand where Andersson is coming from with this album. A little like Agnetha Falkstog did with her "My Colouring Book" album, Andersson is revisiting the music of his youth, except the music he played as a boy on the accordion and piano is much older than some of the standards Falkstog tackled as a singer, and unlike Falkstog, his album is full of new compositions influenced by the music of his childhood.
However there is no denying that Andersson is an exceptionally gifted keyboard player and composer and he has surrounded himself with very talented musicians to produce music which cannot be described as relevant, but certainly is enjoyable.
Full Track List
1. Glasgow Boogie
3. Story Of A Heart
4. Bed of Roses
5. You Are My Man
6. Circus finemang
7. Fait Accompli
8. Song From The Second Floor
9. Birthday Waltz For Mona
10. Our Last Dance
12. Tyrolean Schottische
13. The Stars
~This review has previously been published by me under the same username on Ciao~
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Glasgow Boogie
3 Story Of A Heart
4 Bed Of Roses
5 You Are My Man
6 Cirkus Finemang
7 Fait Accompli
8 SÃ¥ng frÃ¥n andra vÃ¥ningen
9 FÃ¶delsedagsvals till Mona
10 (If This Is) Our Last Dance
12 Schottis i Tyrolen
13 The Stars