Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Cardigans

In the post-grunge, pre-electronica world of apathetic audiences, flat sales, and No Big Thing, the pure pop of the Cardigans has hit like a virus that circumvents all rational defenses and goes straight for the central nervous system. The lighter-than-air melodies and samba-inflected dance beats, combined with the unflappable soprano of vocalist Nina Persson, deliver the punch of some weird amalgam of Blondie and Burt Bacharach.
In Boston, where the Swedish quintet recently played two sold-out shows at the 600-capacity Paradise with the local trio Papas Fritas, the Cardigans' rise has been so meteoric, that they short-circuited the usual radio market pattern, jumping from modern rock pioneers WFNX 101.7 to top-40 WXKS (Kiss 108) faster than you could say ABBA. After the indie debut American release Life (Minty Fresh), the major label "First Band on the Moon," powered by the single "Lovefool," is leapfrogging up the album charts. So much for the mid-'90s distinction between "alternative" and anything else.

At the Paradise, the band defied other expectations as well. Papas Fritas (another Minty Fresh act) is a quirky guitar-bass-drums outfit, well-suited to the club scene. But confections like the Cardigans with their piping synth lines, girlish vocals, and bric-a-brac of strings, horns and other sweeteners generally fall flat live, like a souffle in a thunderstorm.

But the Cardigans, if anything, were stronger than on record. Drummer Brengt Lagerburg's snare and cymbal patterns easily shifted between rock shuffle and samba glide. Songwriter/guitarist Peter Svensson and bassist Magnus Sveningsson drove big steamy riffs through the bridge of the bittersweet breakup song "Been It." Bassist Sveningsson, in particular, is a rhythm player whose lines have a flowing melodic snap, perhaps nowhere more so than on "Lovefool," where the economy and drive of his dancing, repeated figures recalled the heyday of Motown genius James Jamerson.

None of which is to underestimate dimpled, cat-eyed blonde beauty Persson. On disc, her tone has the artificial purity and consistency of a Nilla Wafer. Live, wearing a camouflage-pattern tank top and leather pants, she gave the songs' arcing melodies a steely presence. Delivering the line "Has he lost his mind, can he see or is he blind?," she made the lead-off "Iron Man" as delicate a lament as "Fool on the Hill." When you can float Ozzy Osbourne in as rarefied an atmosphere as Lennon and McCartney, your sense of pop has to be downright fearless.


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