Think fast: when I say, “ Sweden,” tell me the first thing that pops into your head. ABBA? IKEA? Garage-rock? Ok, that was a trick question and all of those answers are acceptable, but you’re forgetting something. Sweden ’s biggest export since ABBA, and popular long before bands like the Hives, Mando Diao and Sahara Hotnights defined the new garage-rock revolution, there were the Cardigans.
The Cardigans were an underground sensation amongst certain Euro-pop circles in 1995 thanks to the fabulous, shimmering disco-romp “Carnival,” taken from their unabashedly exuberant record, Life. Life’s cover-art—a blond, pale, beaming, roller-skate-wearing, soft-blue hued Nina Persson—was the perfect summation of the type of music the Cardigans trafficked in up to that point: Fun-loving, good-timey, happy pop music. As well received as Life was upon its domestic release, nothing could prepare the cutesy combo for the universal superstardom that was to come. Director Baz Lurhman included their song “Lovefool” on the soundtrack of his Romeo & Juliet and the rest, as they say, is pop music history. The song became an enormous worldwide hit and catapulted the band to A-list status around the globe. Unfortunately, topping the pop charts isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The band struggled with their newfound fame, and turmoil fractured the group, causing members to take a break to pursue outside interests.
It’s a story that’s been retold countless times. Band scores a hit, then promptly vanishes from the public’s radar forever, left to wallow in obscurity for eternity, leaving behind a song that to this day still gets dozens of spins on adult-contemporary radio stations across the country.
In a cruel, cold-hearted industry full of vicious folks who would like nothing more than to see you fail, I genuinely love a good underdog story.
We’re still not quite to the halfway point in the year, but if there’s any justice left in this crazy, mixed-up world, the Cardigans should rightfully be crowned comeback band of the year. Long ago sent out to one-hit wonder/VH-1 “Where Are They Now” pasture, the Cardigans have persevered and are back on American shores for the first time in five years with a new record and a tour to boot.
On the night that their newest long-player, Long Gone Before Daylight, finally received its domestic release (the record had previously been available as an import for nine months), an adoring, capacity Los Angeles crowd who have waited a half-decade to fete their heroes eagerly looked on. Still popular amongst anglophiles who’ve stuck with and followed the group through their tumultuous post-“Lovefool” years – including ‘99’s underwhelming (more critically than commercially as the collection went Gold twice here in the States) Gran Turismo, and lead-Cardigan Nina Persson’s side-project work with Sparklehorse frontman Mark Linkous in A Camp – their devotion and enthusiasm is never more evident as when the band took the stage. First out was lead guitarist Peter Svensson, then one by one the band took their places on stage to zealous cheers as Svensson gently strummed the first few chords to “And Then You Kissed Me.” The song is Long Gone Before Daylight’s centerpiece, a churning ballad in which Persson sings of being hopelessly attracted to an abusive beau. Many in the audience had clearly either downloaded or gotten a hold of an import copy of the record as they were already well-versed with the lyrics and fervently singing along.
This is the last night of their brief major-city promotional tour in which they’re devoting their sets almost exclusively to the new record. In fact, they only deviate from the record on five occasions during a commanding 17-song set: they covered Black Sabbath’s “Changes”, played a new one called “(If I Were) Less Like You”, and then performed a trio of songs from Gran Turismo ( “Hanging Around”, “Erase and Rewind”, and the encore-closing, crowd-favorite “My Favourite Game.”)
Besides the fact that the group is out promoting a new record, the new material is influenced more by singer-songwriter, alt-country textures (a logical progression from Persson’s work in A Camp) and less by post-trip-hop atmospherics or kitschy disco-pop. The fact that they weren’t playing older songs made sense if only because it would be hard to imagine all of it flowing together very well.
Book-ended on stage by towering bassist Magnus Sveningsson and guitarist Svennson, a long-haired, confident Persson (now a medium brunette) delivered a surprisingly pitch-perfect vocal performance. Surprising because she had been rumored to have had a cold, but her voice hit all the marks, seemingly effortlessly. There was only one minor glitch, occurring early on in the set when Persson’s harmonica gave her some problems during “For What It’s worth.” Otherwise, the veteran band (supplemented on this night by a female back-up vocalist slash multi-instrumentalist) managed to replicate their glossy studio ditties to a T, much to the delight of their fans, both old-school and new-school.
The band is already slated to return this summer to support Liz Phair on her unfortunately titled “Chicks with Attitude” tour, and then the Cardies will be back on their own again in the fall. Whether or not they pay homage to their history by playing more of their back catalog remains to be seen, but the new material certainly holds up well on its own. The band finally seems content and comfortable in their own skin, and here’s to hoping that the glowing response to the new record affords the group the opportunity to continue to make music on their own terms for many years to come.