Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beautiful Life: Ace of Base at 2011 North America Outgames

There’s a line in Almost Famous, when Zooey Deschanel’s character says to her un-hip but sweet brother, “don’t worry: one day, you’ll be cool”. Some have claimed 1990s dance band Ace of Base were anything but cool, even if they were the most successful musical act of the planet and sold 20 million records in a single year. It’s rather appropriate then that the group gets to headline the forthcoming North America Outgames Closing Party during Vancouver Pride Week, arguably the single coolest event on the social calendar in Lotusland this summer.

Ace of Base is the brainchild of Swedish singer-songwriter Ulf Ekberg and initially composed of five members, including sisters Jenny and Linn Berggren. Eventually, other members of the band left and the Berggrens' brother Jonas stepped in, forming the most familiar line-up of the group in 1990. Ace of Base first attempted to bring techno-dance sound to the airwaves, but were prevented from major breakout success even in their native Sweden due to the prominence of heavy metal in the early 1990s. Eventually, they broke through with “All That She Wants”, a dub-reggae single that came to represent their signature sound and conquered European pop charts in the fall and spring of 1992-1993.

Ace of Base, the "classic" line-up
The band first emerged on the international music scene in the summer of 1993, when “All That She Wants” appeared in North American clubs after conquering the European charts over the previous three seasons. In a rare feat, and in an era when grunge, New Jack Swing R&B and gangsta rap ruled the airwaves, the dub-reggae-infused dance club single gained significant airplay in the United States and crossed over on the pop, adult contemporary, dance and R&B charts, ultimately peaked at Number Two and selling well over a million copies domestically. Follow-up single “The Sign” gave the band their only US #1 in 1994, but it proved so popular and enduring that Billboard magazine named it the #1 single of the entire year. Parent album The Sign topped the charts as well, and became the year’s best-selling disc.

The band, however, was unable to repeat the same success. Their 1995 follow-up disc The Bridge was a failure on the American charts, peaking at #37 just a year after having the most successful disc in the country. The band quietly reined in their North American efforts, although their cover of Bananarama’s immortal “Cruel Summer” made the Top Ten in 1998 and “Beautiful Life” remains an enduring hit on recurrent radio. Elsewhere in Europe, the band’s success continued through the rest of the decade, even if the Berggren sisters both receded to the background voluntarily before eventually leaving the band. Eventually, they were replaced by Clara Hagman and Julia Williamson, forming the current lineup.

Despite their stunning success, the band was not without its critics. In particular, music critics roundly panned The Sign, and they were routinely criticized for not having alleged musical street credibility or an edge. Given that the band’s popularity was at its zenith in an era when Nirvana and Tupac were their musical contemporaries, it was easy to dismiss them as a gaggle of benign ABBA knockoffs. (Yes, the comparisons to that 70s super-group haunted the band throughout their entire career, although they have far less unfortunate stage costumes.) Most critics conveniently, routinely forget that founding member Ekberg was at one time a member of the Neo-Nazi rock band Commit Suicide, and himself received death threats from white supremacists at the height of his fame. Measured against the likes of Kurt Cobain and Shakur in terms of street cred, that’s in and of itself pretty badass.

Current Ace of Base line-up
In the years since the peak of their commercial powers, Ace of Base’s handful of chart-topping dance-ready hits became staples of adult contemporary radio and remains popular in nightclubs, in remixed form, and can still get a party crankin’. The band’s co-opting of late 80s and reggae sounds in blended electronic form influenced no less than Lady Gaga, who claimed that several of her hits, notably her smash “Alejandro”, was influenced by mid-90s and Ace of Base in particular. The now-defunct British band Steps modeled their sound heavily on Ace of Base, and Katy Perry stated that her album Teenage Dream was influenced by the band’s recordings. The band’s re-emergence in 2010 with the new lineup has been successful, as the group has embarked on a number of revival tours throughout Europe.

Ace of Base will be making their first Canadian appearance in several years on July 30, 2011, as the headliners of the North America Outgames Closing Party in Vancouver. They will also appear with Canadian electronic sensations Dragonette and a number of local artists, such as Matthew Presidente, DJ Adam Dreaddy and Sugarbeach. It is fitting that the band will play a number of Pride-related activities in Canada, as Ace of Base’s most loyal audience outside of Europe remains the gay club scene. Go to any local gay bar and you’ll more than likely hear “Beautiful Life” as a club-stomper that everyone will chant along to. More information can be obtained here and here. Take note that Ace of Base will also headline the Capital Exhibition in Edmonton on July 31, and will also play Montreal on August 3 and Toronto on August 4. [Update: for a review of the concert, click here.]