Music News

Polar Opposites

Besides the phenomenal writing of Knut Hamsun, the postcard-perfect fjords, an advanced garment system known as lusekofte and some of the world's best-tasting salmon, what can Norway really boast about to the rest of the world? The invention of the cheese slicer? The paper clip? Blueberry soup? Graciously hosting Tonya Harding's meltdown at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer?

As far as musical exports go, the land of curiously maned Norse gods has even fewer reasons to strut around like some mighty, golden-haired Thor -- that is, unless '80s-era pop footnote A-Ha ranks up there with Constitution Day as a source of national pride. Though Norway has just barely managed to equal the sonic treasures of Denmark (Aqua, anyone?), it's never come within spitting distance of Iceland's ethereal songstress Björk (but may be catching up with that country's other national treasure, Sigur Rós, which performs Saturday, November 16, at the Ogden Theatre). Norway has been huffing Sweden's cultural exhaust for decades. Consider the global impact of ABBA, Ace of Bass, the Cardigans and Eagle Eye Cherry (but only if you must); for fans of much harder sounds, there are the Hellacopters and the Hives.

Okay, black metal did put Norway on the map in the early '90s, back when various friends and members of Mayhem tried to get on Satan's good side by setting several medieval churches ablaze, desecrating some graveyards and slaughtering a few helpless people. On the bright side, these stupid, misguided neo-Vikings, so enamored of violence, inverted crosses and darkly symphonic speed metal, may have helped influence the more genteel form of pagan revivalism now sweeping the nation: a classic-sounding, garage-fueled brand of rock and roll that's motivated less by senseless blood sacrifice and more by pure, raucous fun.

However it all evolved, Cato Salsa Experience now finds itself at the epicenter of Oslo's much improved and ever-expanding music scene. The foursome's infectious, amp-rattling nostalgia not only conjures the mid-'60s stompin' heyday of bands like the Troggs, the MC5 and the Stooges, but it revives a long-lost tradition of ridiculously named one-hit-wonder groups like the Electric Prunes, the Yellow Payges and Chocolate Watchband. CSE could find itself right at home on Lenny Kaye's groundbreaking 1972 Nuggets LP, a treasure long out of print but recently reissued as a Rhino boxed set.

On Nuggets, Kaye -- the former Patti Smith Group lead guitarist and a rock historian -- chronicles some of the best psychedelic mid-'60s-era bands that few people had previously heard of: the Seeds, Count Five, the Castaways, the Barbarians, ? and the Mysterians, and Tonto and the Renegades, among others. Oozing the simple nature and ecstatic spirit of rock and roll, each of these proto-punk combos sounds like an impromptu stage show that even your drunkest and most stoned friends could pull off during the right take. For lo, in spite of its acoustical misgivings, there is true democracy in a garage.

Yet for CSE's frontman/guitarist Cato Salsa (who files his taxes under the name of Cato Thomassen), garage rock remains a loose and relative term -- especially when it comes to the finer points of getting one's freak on.

"It's not plain garage rock anyway," Salsa insists via crackling cell phone on a tour bus somewhere near Charlotte, North Carolina. "But people can call it whatever they want. For me, it's more varied in a way. But I guess the energy and the kind of distorted sounds are why people call it garage rock. But I hope that they can see some other influences as well."

"I don't always get the reference," says drummer Jon R. Lugar, who, along with bassist Francis Moon (born Christian Engfelt) and keyboard player Nina Delay round out the fair-skinned and high-cheekboned Experience; the average age of the bandmembers is 28. "When we recorded the songs, garage rock wasn't in my head. I thought of John Bonham, and I thought of the guy from Flaming Lips [Steven Drozd], and I thought of Dinosaur Jr. Cato would hear one thing, and Christian and Nina would hear something else. And as long as they don't collide, we got something out of it. And that's the point, as long as it works. But I don't see the album we made as garage rock or '60s rock."

That's odd, because the band's debut, A Good Tip for a Good Time (released on Emperor Norton Records) blends the vintage gear of wah-wah guitars, mellotrons and theremins with the go-go bounce of swelling keyboards in predictable 4/4 time. Raw and unruly, the album -- packaged in near-Day-Glo colors with fat, curvaceous lettering -- features enough funky bass lines and heavy grooves to give the first psychedelic garage explosion a run for its krone. Instead of flower power and protest anthems, however, Salsa sings of nocturnal clowns ("So, the Circus Is Back in Town") and sexy footwear ("High Heeled Leather Boots"). The music is simple and accessible, with little premeditation; it could likely help even the nerdiest college freshman get laid. Replacing lyrical depth is shameless camp ("Listen to Me Daddy'O," "Time to Freak Out") that, perhaps due to cultural naiveté, lends a certain wide-eyed charm to the way that CSE celebrates American artifacts. Horn tracks, courtesy of brass master Jaga Jazzist, spice up tunes like "M.F." and "Deadbeat" to habanero-like heights. And while the band doesn't exactly reinvent the rock-and-roll wheel, it crafts plenty of terrific dance songs that clock in at around three minutes without need of translation. Lacking any trace of a foreign accent in his English singing voice, Salsa might even pass himself off as a red-blooded Yank while exalting the merits of yet another groovy hullabaloo, Oslo style.

"I just want to do it for my own amusement," Salsa admits. "And if other people get amused by it, too, then I'm happy. I want to make people dance and have a good time. There's a lot of pretentiousness going in rock and roll, but people can choose what they want to do. Everybody can't say something important all the time. I don't feel that I'm capable of doing that, anyway. I just wanna do what I do."

Considering the lack of sunshine in frigid Scandinavia, it's no surprise that introspection comes naturally to most Norwegians who, per capita, read more than any other population in the world.

"We have sun from April until September and then it's dark for six months," Salsa points out. "I think people like to tuck themselves in front of a fire and read. A lot of people get depressed from winter. It's part of your whole living and identity. People are handling it pretty fine, I think. They're human and can deal with it. People can't go surfing that much here, so they have to play music instead."

After eschewing a university degree in anthropology and economics, Salsa, whose father is "an expert in rust protection" for the Norwegian auto industry, followed his muse to a separate kind of education. "In Norway, people think when you're in a band, you don't do anything real," Salsa says. "You don't have a proper job, in a way. You're just fooling around with something that you can't make any money on. Some of us still have part-time jobs in Norway, but it's getting better. If we can step even one more level up, then it's okay."

In a country as consumer-oriented as the rest of the Western world, CSE is at least enjoying the benefits of a national scene that embraces distinctly different genres of music -- everything from the black metal of Darkthrone and Burzum to the more punk-influenced sounds of Lucifer. Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, claims the acoustic pop combo Kings of Convenience as well as the ambient, understated electronica group Röyksopp as residents. And after tearing up clubs across Scandinavia and beyond, CSE has come to view neighboring Sweden's musical monopoly as less of a threat and more of a benefit.

"Usually the Swedish and Norwegian bands in the rock scene are friends," Salsa says. "But I think the music machinery and business of Sweden runs more smoothly than the Norwegian one. It's a bigger country. Sweden is twice the size of Norway. I guess they have better traditions. They're more respectful towards rock-and-roll music, and they have been for years. Norway has been looked upon, you know, as things people do for their hobby, not what they should do professionally."

Thankfully, times change. Vikings adapt. Valhalla, CSE is coming.

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John La Briola