Two years ago, the Swedish pop quartet A*Teens released their infamous debut disc, The Abba Generation (MCA). The timing couldn’t have been better for a teen-pop Abba tribute: Britney Spears and ’N Sync were still at the top of the charts, and the hit Abba musical Mamma Mia! was just arriving on American shores. The group released "Dancing Queen" (duh) as a single, toured with both Britney and ’N Sync, and watched the album go gold. Last year, they pushed themselves to the next level with their first release of all-new material, Teen Spirit (MCA), which featured boys Amit and Dhani singing alongside girls Sara and Marie for the first time on disc. The single "Bouncing off the Ceiling (Upside Down)" was a huge kiddie hit, and suddenly they were the biggest Scandinavian dance-pop stars since Aqua.
These days, the oldest A*Teen is 19, and the group are back with their third album, Pop ’til You Drop! (MCA), and a headlining tour that hits FleetBoston Pavilion next Thursday. They’re back doing oldies, too, with a hit version of Elvis Presley’s "Can’t Help Falling in Love" that also appears on the soundtrack to Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. For obvious reasons, Elvis doesn’t come as naturally to the group as Abba, but they give the song a skittery British garage overhaul that would turn just about anything into radiant kiddie pop. The girls steal the show with a couple of choice yelps, and the way the vocal harmonies on the verse evoke Vitamin C’s "Graduation" is icing on the cake.
A*Teens inhabit a teen-pop universe that has seen better days: Britney, ’N Sync, and Backstreet Boys are all fading, and potential successors Aaron Carter and Lil Bow Wow have yet to capture a post-teen audience the way their elders once did. A*Teens are probably too anonymous to compete at a superstar level, but their distinctly European pop purism gives them an important advantage over their American counterparts: they’re unburdened by the pressures of street cred. Britney and company alienated many of their younger fans by drifting toward hip-hop, adopting edgier themes, and writing their own songs. A*Teens do try their hand at songwriting for the first time on Pop ’til You Drop!, but like fellow Europop royalty Kylie Minogue and S Club 7, they remain committed to fun above everything else.
There’s no better way to start a dance party than by paraphrasing Madonna, which A*Teens do on the first verse of the disc’s opening "Floorfiller": "Hey Mr. DJ, in case you forgot/I came to get down, so you better make it hot." They let their continental roots show all over the place, from the echoes of the Bananarama/Ace of Base hit "Cruel Summer" that run through the verses to the sharp vocal accents they use to shout the song’s title. Like several other songs on the album, "Floorfiller" was written and produced by disco specialists Grizzly and Tysper, who were also responsible for much of Teen Spirit.
A*Teens are mostly about full-throttle dance pop, but they know how to turn heartbreak into a monster ballad when they need to. Boys and girls trade verses on "Hi and Goodbye," a catchy bit of melodrama written by the same Thomander/Wikstršm team that penned the irresistible (and guitar-heavy) teen-pop hit "Juliet" for the group’s tourmates, LMNT. A*Teens’ material doesn’t stray far from the norm, but their vocal arrangements are a cut above, and that can make all the difference in teen pop. They’re playful without being ostentatious, and the girls, especially, sound more assured than most of their contemporaries.
The disc’s only real Abba move, "Closer to Perfection," is also one of its highlights. The song’s mid-tempo electropulse would have suited A*Teens’ idols well, and the chorus has the kind of melody that moves from one interesting place to another so quickly you barely have time to make out the words. Lighter on its feet but not quite as compelling is "This Year," a contribution from top-shelf American songwriters Billy Steinberg and Marti Frederiksen that steps outside the Europop box with its folky overtones.
In a pop landscape that’s been swooning over all things Swedish and electro for most of this year, A*Teens have gotta be one of the coolest groups in the world, right? They make their case at the end of the disc with their first ever rock cover: Alice Cooper’s "School’s Out," complete with the legendary shock jock on guest vocals. It’s a corny, slowed-down version that relegates the original’s legendary guitar hook to the background, so it doesn’t stand a chance against their Elvis cover. But then Alice shows up a couple of times to leer, "That’s a drag," like somebody’s crazy old uncle, and A*Teens work their fancy harmonies overtime on the "No more teachers" part. And suddenly, it becomes just as guileless and likable as the rest of their stuff.
A*Teens, Baha Men, and LMNT perform next Thursday, August 22, at FleetBoston Pavilion. Call (617) 728-1600.