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Interview with Alcazar

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After Abba, Ace of Base, Roxette and Army of Lovers, Alcazar is Sweden's newest hit sensation. The group is already a platinum hitmaker in Europe and Australia, and is now ready to conquer North America with the U.S. release of their debut album, "Casino."

Formed in 1999, Alcazar is Tess Merkel, Annikafiorem Johansson and 30-year-old lead singer Andreas Lundstedt, who is openly gay.

Alcazar's music is an infectious blend of pumping, old-school disco and sweet vocal harmonies combined with a stylish, campy stage presentation. In a landscape where dance music is ruled by long-stretched DJ-produced techno anthems, the peppy "Casino" is arguably one of the most original and refreshing dance albums of the year.

The record features the group's European breakthrough hit "Crying At The Discothéque," which was earlier released in the U.S. on the first "Queer as Folk" soundtrack. The track will be the first single of "Casino" and is accompanied by a Gucci-styled video including over-the-top, glittery male hot pants and freaky dancing forest animals. If you ever thought disco was predictable, Alcazar might surprise you.

"Casino" was a solid six months in production, and its strength is clearly built around super hit "Discothéque" and similar, well-produced disco tunes like "Sexual Guarantee," "Shine On" and "Paradise."

The uninspiring, Latin-infused "Ritmo Del Amor" and the rather dull "Breaking Free" provide rare moments of monotony, but things rebound quickly with a catchy cover of Human League's "Don't You Want Me" and the interesting, Broadway-esque "Tears of a Clone."

It comes as no surprise that even though Alcazar has a wide demographic appeal, the band is a huge smash with gay audiences throughout the world. The group headlined Sydney's gay Mardi Gras in March, and also performed at several pride events in Europe this year. The combination of Alcazar's colorful, kitschy pop with their stylish and high-energy live act has proven 100 percent rainbow-proof.

Andreas Lundstedt, Alcazar's gay front man, talked with arjanwrites.com about being gay in pop land.

"I am not making a secret of the fact that I'm gay, but I don't want to make it a big deal either," the singer said in a telephone interview.

"In Europe, people are so cool about it that it really doesn't matter," he says. "I am primarily an entertainer, and that is important to me and the audience. I get a lot of fan mail from teenage girls, though. They send me teddy bears and letters. I have no idea if they know I am gay."

Lundstedt acknowledged the importance of a gay base in creating mainstream success for Alcazar.

"Gays love our music," he says. "We went to Sydney, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm and many other cities to perform at pride events, and the support from gays has been amazing. They have this thing to wear disco balls on their heads, every time we play. I guess they understand what Alcazar is all about: kitsch, camp and fun. It is Studio 54 all over again!"

Asked if he thinks that Alcazar might be a labeled a gay band for its cheeky music and sassy stage act, Lundstedt says, "Gays have a good taste, don't they? It is a big compliment."

He adds that the group is looking forward to coming to America and conquering the new world.

"It is hard work, but I enjoy every minute of it. I hope that all my American friends come to see the shows," says Lundstedt, who lived in New York City for two years in the mid-'90s.

Some critics will inevitably dismiss Alcazar as a trendy, record company fabrication with little to offer musically. But most hit acts like Alcazar have never claimed to be more than fun entertainment that is easy on the ear and sparkling to the eye.

Alcazar just happens to do both very, very well.

December 11, 2002 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Loving "Frida"

When Oscar-nominated composer Elliot Goldenthal set out to compile the soundtrack for the movie "Frida," he aimed to create a musical score that would further intensify the movie's dramatic storytelling and folkloric visuals.

The album's unique mix of rhythms and themes from a variety of Latin countries has struck a chord with both movie buffs and music lovers and is now topping Billboard's World Music Chart. It also has been nominated for a Golden Globe.

Directed by Julie Taymor, "Frida" chronicles the life of bisexual painter Frida Kahlo, who was arguably one of the most celebrated and revolutionary artists of the 20th century. Born in Mexico City in 1910, Kahlo picked up painting while recovering from a serious trolley accident.

The artist continued to suffer tremendous pain and fatigue as a result of the accident for the rest of her life. Her grieving, compounded by her abuse of alcohol and drugs, eventually led to her death at age 47.

Kahlo was notorious for her rebellious behavior and illicit, sexual escapades with both men and women. She married fellow artist Diego Rivera in 1929, but had numerous affairs with other men, including Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian Communist leader. Kahlo also never made a secret of her attraction to women, which was often an inspiration for her art.

The film offers a riveting musical experience, which combines both contemporary songwriting and instrumental arrangements with authentic Latin folk styles, ranging from Mexican balladry to mariachi, and from tango to romantic boleros.

Goldenthal knows how to use music to add significance to the movie's most pivotal scenes. A good example is "Alcoba Azul (The Blue Room)," a sweeping tango that Goldenthal composed for the homo-erotic dance sequence of Kahlo and Tina Modotti. Mexican artist Lila Downs sings, "Come back to me/Love me in the dark/In our blue room/Where there is no sun for us."

Besides "Alcoba Azul," Downs also performs other new songs, "Benediction and Dream" and "Estrella Oscura." She adds a rhythmic exuberance to the mariachi version of "La Llorona," exhibiting a tune uniquely Mexican with its frivolous mix of violins, trumpets and guitars.

Chavela Vargas sings a raw, acoustic version of "La Llorona" (The Weeping Woman), which is truly breathtaking. Her passionate outcry exemplifies Kahlo's haunting battle with grief, pain and disappointment in life during one of the final scenes in the movie.

Vargas, now 81 and known as the "Edith Piaf of Latin music," actually had a real love affair with Kahlo after she was forced to leave her Costa Rican home because of her open homosexuality. Goldenthal comments, "We were indeed blessed that she sang "La Llorona" on screen. She preferred not to sing to playback and she gave us 12 incredible takes. It is kind of eerie to see her singing with Salma made up as Frida knowing that Chavela was once Frida's lover."

This soundtrack is simply sublime. Its fusion of authentic Latin sounds and original, emotionally charged compositions, culminates into a feast for the ears. As a bonus, the enhanced CD of "Frida" is packed with exciting DVD footage, including interviews with Goldenthal and director Julie Taymor and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from the film.

The annual Academy Awards will most likely ignore "Frida" for its cinematic accomplishment and (unfortunately) favor the works of glitzy, safe-bet Hollywood filmmakers. However, the musical achievement of this movie is worth nothing less than a solid Oscar nomination, if not a win.

December 9, 2002 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)