Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MSN Music News

Teddybears Live: Not So Cuddly

The Swedish trio's sly, unrelenting stage show hits New York

The Swedish production trio Teddybears began life two decades ago as a grindcore band but have made their name and their records by inducing better vocalists to perform their stuff--on their current "Devil's Music," Cee Lo Green, the Flaming Lips, the B-52's, Eve, B.o.B., their buddy Robyn, and some lesser Swedes. As a touring band, however, they take a different approach. And on Sept. 12 at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, where an enthusiastic if less than jam-packed downstairs section was augmented by an upstairs reserved for label reps and other VIPs, I finally got to witness it.

The short version of Teddybears' show is that they dress up like teddy bears, but this is too crude. In fact all three wear nondescript suits and ties, and the oversized bear heads you can see on their album jackets are even less cuddly--they're made of molded plastic, roomy enough although I did begin to wonder how they're ventilated, with glowing red eyes and, for that grindcore touch, teeth. And lest you expect taped vocals with a surprise guest or two, be aware that through these molded plastic heads Teddybears appear to sing--if you call that singing, which I do.

The reason this is a question is that barely a "human" or "natural" sound is heard for the entirety of a show played (almost) entirely on digital devices that lasts an hour and a quarter and, like a DJ set, never pauses--a few taped snatches of Robyn and one brief spoken introduction was it. Occasionally a treated verse may distort the original vocalist--Green on "Cho Cha," Wayne Coyne on "Crystal Meth Christians"--but it's impossible to tell. A Teddybears concert means to be an uninterrupted rhythmic barrage of melodic electronics that register as somehow "rock" because they're pitched low. And the vocal part of this barrage is supplied by the three guys in the bear heads: the one on the left who raised the drumsticks with which he'd been beating his computer thingy in a demonic "V" during the opening "Devil's Music," the one on the right who brandished a vodka bottle now and then, and most especially the one in the middle whose head looked slightly bigger, probably Robyn henchman Klas Ahlund.

This was a remarkable performance that never stopped being slightly humorous. Arrangements often elaborated or maybe remixed the recorded originals, and compensating for the lack of conventional showmanship was a nonstop light show in which revolving bear-head patterns in color and black-and-white alternated with kaleidoscopic pulsations, blinding strobes, and roller-coaster zooms. The lead bear, call him Bighead, came forward every once in a while to sing in his electro-dybbuk growl, urge us on verbally, or venture into the crowd to do his paunchy air-hump dance with a scruffily collegiate guy who looked ready to grind all night. And then there was the show-stopper, in which Bighead disappeared for a minute and came back wearing the bear-head version of a mirrored ball and flaunting a double-necked guitar on which he proceeded to rip off the kind of virtuoso metal set-piece that sounds like somebody's been studying Pachelbel. His hands were covered in pink human skin, not fur or brown gloves. He wiggled his fingers in case we didn't notice.

Downstairs, everyone thoroughly enjoyed this show. Fans up front sang along on the climactic "Punkrocker," originally belted by Iggy Pop. Here, however, it was muffled by the heavily treated, Swedish-accented Bighead until it almost sounded like "Ponddragger," and as I left the building I found myself wondering how the folks upstairs would gauge Teddybears' American reach.

MSN Music, September 19, 2011