Five winsome young Swedish beatniks sharing a house in Malmo and a penchant for wistful melodies with light, sophisticated lounge arrangements: meet the Cardigans. The cherubic Nina Persson’s cool vocals (in English) are matched by the deft instrumental touch of her male colleagues; what they offer is a distance from rock’n’roll, something they cheerfully profess to hate. Nonetheless, the group shares with many of their fellow Scandinavians a fondness for death metal, perhaps understandable in the light of the fact that Malmo is the religious center of Sweden. For the Cardigans, this enthusiasm finds expression through delicate close-harmony versions of Ozzy songs, revealing an elegance often overlooked in the work of the Midlands gloom guvner.
Emmerdale (the title is from a dull English rural soap opera) shows the Cardigans already fully formed stylistically, but still somewhat introverted. A high point is “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” which is somehow lured into a Rive Gauche nightclub, emerging with a jade cigarette holder and lipstick on its collar.
For Life, the Cardigans left the more languid stuff behind, resulting in an assured and happy cocktail of melodic invention and ’60s motifs. The obligatory vibraphone is joined by woodwinds, brass, strings and finger snaps; the immaculately cheesy jazz guitars are occasionally turned up past the “mellow” marker; the rhythm section even shows it can pump out a soul groove. Persson sings as softly and precisely as Peggy Lee; at one point she gets carried away and essays a “la la la doobie doobie doo.” Look out. Life appears in three different versions: the UK and US releases both delete tracks from the Swedish original in order to reprise some of the catchier tunes (like “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”) from Emmerdale. Meanwhile, the belated American issue of Emmerdale appends a disc containing the four Life songs omitted from the American edition of that album.
First Band on the Moon loses much of the lounge factor in favor of pure pop smarts. The sound is still sunny and jazzy, but Persson’s lyrics undercut her cheerful delivery on such up-tempo tunes as “Been It” (“Baby I was your whore / Who could ask me for more?”) and “Lovefool,” a song that gave the group its only US hit by dint of its inclusion in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The ballads pull off similar dichotomies of sweet presentation and sour intent. “Great Divide” is a pretty lullaby about growing apart, and “Heartbreaker” is a dizzy waltz about a lover who can’t help but mistreat (and be mistreated in return). With the ten fully realized originals on the album, the Black Sabbath cover (“Iron Man”) is superfluous. Never mind that. First Band on the Moon offers some of the easiest-to-swallow, most multi- dimensional female pop this side of the early Bangles.
Gran Turismo has a darker sound and an overabundance of mid-tempo tracks, making it a bit of a trudge at times. Some of the slower songs even approach trip-hop. Too many cuts come off half-baked. In fact, with the exception of the strong single, “My Favourite Game,” the second half of the album is full of songs that each contain a good idea or two each but don’t quite gel, which is really annoying. The first half is a little more successful, culminating in the hopeful but trippy ballad “Higher.”
The Cardigans’ fall from First Band grace continues with Long Gone Before Daylight, a mediocre snoozer that was never released in the US, making it an expensive import of a mediocre snoozer. The liner notes say the album was “Initially co-produced by Tore Johansson,” indicating the band’s longtime knob man jumped ship in midstream, which is never a good sign. Sure enough, the album consists of leaden ballads and mid-tempo numbers, with nothing even approaching the kinetic spark of “My Favourite Game.” The melodies generally have all the artistic flair of paint-by-numbers, and lyrics were never the band’s strong suit anyway. Worthy ideas pop up very occasionally, but mining for them is a tedious proposition. What’s the point? For an album that took five years to make, this is a major disappointment.