- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Musician Jens Lekman knows his way around a bingo parlor. Were he from America, this might be something of an oddity, but in his native Sweden, life is often filled with cards, chips and those five winning letters.

“Bingo is huge there,” the 27-year-old artist says, “from TV shows where basically the whole nation plays on Sunday night to drive-in bingo where people sit in their cars and play, to bingo halls where all the older people in the cities go.” Mr. Lekman says that although he’s a little embarrassed about the national pastime, he has worked for about five gaming parlors throughout his life (including during a two-day stint just a few years back when he decided he needed a break from music).

“That’s the job you can get in five minutes,” the musician says. “They won’t even ask you any questions.” Ultimately, Mr. Lekman chose to pursue a more difficult career as a purveyor of indie pop music — a wise decision, given the success he already has achieved. In his homeland, the artist has won several awards and prime chart placement, and here in the U.S., he has become a darling of indie-rock critics and listeners alike.

Mr. Lekman’s music has several selling points. First, there’s his voice: a smooth baritone that sounds a lot like Morrissey’s except for the way his slight Swedish accent endearingly reinterprets words like “father” (“fah-der”) and “avocado” (“ah-voh-ca-doh”).

Then there are his clever, quirky lyrics. Ranging from classic to contemporary, his songs turn rather pedestrian events into transformative experiences. In his 2003 hit “Maple Leaves,” for example, the artist uses his smarts and sharp wit to create a misunderstanding that is at once silly and tragic: “She said it was all make-believe/ But I thought you said maple leaves.” In “Your Arms Around Me” (off last fall’s lauded “Night Falls Over Kortedala”), Mr. Lekman gets creative, using an accident in the kitchen as a springboard for waxing sentimental about enduring love.

Even something as commonplace as getting a haircut is a rich experience in Mr. Lekman’s musical world (“Shirin,” also from “Night Falls”).

As with most artists, Mr. Lekman’s work is a reflection of his worldview and an expression of his personality. He’s irreverent and observant, and little things can count for a lot in his book — including the aforementioned haircuts.

The artist grew up in the suburbs of Gothenburg and lived there until recently. (He last resided in Melbourne, Australia, but has no home while he’s on tour.) He wasn’t too fond of his Swedish hometown but says a monthly trim by his stylist, Shirin, “just became a really important ceremony.” This explains why he penned a track about her, renamed his apartment after her place of employment (the Kortedala Beauty Center) and chose to feature an image of himself blissfully being groomed on his latest album cover.

“A lot of those things actually do mean more to me than the things that are supposed to be very meaningful,” Mr. Lekman says.

In addition to pleasing vocals and amusing lyrics, the artist also offers a unique soundscape. His tunes are lush, orchestral, indie-pop gems that skip across the stylistic map. One minute, he’s crooning Frank Sinatra-style atop a slow, full, ‘60s-era melody; the next, he’s inventing an English-language Peruvian polka or evoking the Miracles while singing about more modern-day issues.

Little seems to be off limits for this performer — not even programmed ‘80s drumbeats.

“I like the mixture,” Mr. Lekman says. “I like when very separate decades come together and shake hands and become something new. I like ‘collage music’ — that’s what our people call it.” Given the artist’s rather rapid trajectory from aspiring star sending out CD-Rs to Pitchfork-approved globetrotter, it’s clear that Mr. Lekman isn’t the only one who appreciates his mash-ups. A growing number of people are thankful that this particular Swede finally said N-O to B-I-N-G-O.

Mr. Lekman plays Wednesday at the Black Cat (www.blackcatdc.com). The Honeydrips and Marla Hansen open the 8 p.m. show.

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