Of all the clichéd controversies that have sandbagged rock 'n' roll since the beginning, probably the most persistent, after the sex and drugs, is the old idea that rock music is lowbrow. National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. once called The Beatles "so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music." Buckley didn't think The Beatles were bad musicians—he simply thought rock 'n' roll was uncultured garbage.
As it happens, Icelandic band Kaleo has been on the receiving end of highbrow criticism before, though not coming from an Ivy League conservative like Bill Buckley. The group's homeland is known for its share of famous, far-out musicians like Sigur Rós and Björk. What international audiences don't often get to glimpse, however, is the large number of insular Icelandic music critics and relatively unknown musicians slagging off the country's more famous exports.
The band's first U.S. album, last year's A/B, combines rock, blues, folk, and pop. Kaleo's songwriting is straightforward, with singer Jökull Júlíusson equally comfortable in high and low registers, his range covering soulful and celestial sounds alike. The instrumental hooks of lead guitarist Rubin Pollock are alternately larger-than life, as on radio-friendly tracks like "No Good," or spooky-sweet, with the bluesy "I Can't Go on Without You." The term "easy listening" probably sounds like an insult, but in Kaleo's case it isn't so bad: sometimes things are easy to listen to because they're done well.
So it's surprising that Kaleo got such a chilly reception at home. In the spring of 2014, back before Kaleo's hit ballad "All the Pretty Girls" got the attention of Atlantic Records, I interned for an English-language magazine in Iceland called The Reykjavik Grapevine. At the time, Kaleo had multiple chart-topping songs on Icelandic radio, a raucous debut record with fantastic production quality (now out of print), and ambitions clearly larger than the local market. But I had to fight tooth and nail to get my editor to agree to even a brief album review.
The charge all around the office was the same: Kaleo was derivative, phony, boring. It was a band of sellouts who just hadn't sold out yet. A colleague of mine at the magazine, referring to Kaleo's sincere if predictable love affair with Robert Johnson and Delta blues, once called them "authenticity fetishists," which was funny because that colleague was a Scotsman living in Iceland and wouldn't himself have known the difference between the Mississippi Delta and the Nile Delta. One of the paper's publishers disparagingly referred to Kaleo as a cover band, willfully disregarding the fact that the only cover songs on their debut album were a guitar-solo intro of a patriotic Icelandic melody and a remake of a beloved sixties folk ballad, "Vor í Vaglaskógi."
Funnily enough, the precursor to Kaleo—the current lineup minus Pollock, who would join a few years later—actually did start as a cover band. For four years, it slogged through classic rock songs, some great, some overrated. They were like counterfeit painters in a museum, learning the talents of the masters while trying to copy them. Only these guys were just trying to earn some money in Reykjavik bars. I once asked Júlíusson and drummer David Antonsson about this time and the artistic frustrations that led them to start writing and recording their own music. "In the summer of 2012, we decided we wanted to focus on our own stuff," Júlíusson said. "We had a lot of good songs we could work on."
"And fuck the money," Antonsson broke in.
The home-turf criticism of Kaleo clearly hasn't stuck very well. The band's record deal with Atlantic and its 2015 relocation to Austin, Texas, came about not just because the band wrote a slick pop ballad that made label executives see green but also because of the serious talent keeping the enterprise afloat. Júlíusson's voice is, in many ways, the band's strongest feature. Back in Iceland, when Kaleo used to play small clubs packed to the brim, Júlíusson sang like he meant it, and that hasn't gone away as the group has moved up into larger venues and outdoor music festivals around the world. His lyrics won't ever win him a Nobel Prize, but they still convey an honest heart.
And now the band is about to play its own music—which evokes influences without wanting or needing to mimic them—at North Carolina's flagship art museum. It might not make Kaleo high art, but then again, it really doesn't need to.
Editor's Note: This piece originally stated that Kaleo used a guitar-solo intro of the Icelandic national anthem. The band used a different patriotic song.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Greener Pastures."