Who knows if the ragtag band of Swedes that make up Cinnamon look upon the sweet, sticky pop music they make as a function of intuition or -- as Cinnamon's studied nouveau-mod songs suggest -- merely a matter of design. In any case, "Vertigo," their fourth album (and second to be released in the States), positions them in that strange musical area between slight lifestyle music and perfectly executed pop.
Cinnamon's tunes are built from the bottom up -- guitar-based melodies and vocal hooks -- but it's the giddy way in which the band goes top heavy that separates Cinnamon from the rest of the twee-pop tradition they're clearly working with. Songs that, upon first listen, sound like they're about boy-girl shenanigans turn out to be about the harsh realities of European capitalism, while retrofitted bossa nova grooves get swept away in string-section undertows of "Day in the Life" proportions. They're the Cardigans for smart people.
What a predicament. Because all along, indie-pop bands, especially those of the European variety, have usually fallen into two distinct categories: those who could play their instruments but wrote vacuous lyrics and those who couldn't play but packed their records with far more intellectual concerns. Cinnamon take elements from both camps; they're part of a tradition that made international semistars out of groups like Everything But the Girl and Saint Etienne. (In fact, some of Frida Diesen's vocal turns will make fans of Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell do a double take.) But the posture on these 12 songs suggests that however accomplished and even slick "Vertigo" is, Cinnamon's hearts belong in the student union, picking at a vegan black-bean salad, smoking clove cigarettes and writing letters to the Op-Ed section of the Socialist Worker.
A big part of "Vertigo's" unrelenting sheen -- one laid on so thick that it'll go right over the head of modern-rock radio programmers, who should be going ape shit over them -- is owed to the record's producer, Bertrand Burgalat, and string and brass arranger, Louis Philippe. (Yes, "Vertigo" has its own string and brass arranger.) As a producer, Burgalat has shaped artists like French soap-actress-turned-pop-star Valerie Lemercier and Japanese ingenue Kahimi Karie into international chanteuses. Recording on his own, Philippe crafts lush, fey pop music that begs the listener to toss the T-shirt and don an ascot.
If it all sounds terribly precious, that's the point. There's an element to this kind of music -- and most certainly to Cinnamon in particular -- that wants to reiterate a brand of pop classicism to suggest that pop musician is one of the more elite and important jobs in the world today. Bands like Cinnamon argue that if pop music shapes morality, politics, fashion and other arts, its purveyors should carry themselves with all the style and grace expected of those in positions of influence. In that way they're mods -- and maybe the last ones.
But if you know anything about the old mods, you know that the minute the people begin to pick up on it, the kids in the know move on. Because indie-pop is a club walking in lock step, and because Cinnamon have the panache and chops to lead the whole damned parade, they might not ever break away. Because, sometimes, having the best songs, the best string arrangements, the best singer and the best look just isn't enough. Like a lot of bands before them, Cinnamon know that in the pop music marketplace, taste rarely matters.