Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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THE CARDIGANS
First Band on the Moon
Mercury

Sweden's Cardigans don't just make it a point to sound as banal and cheesy as a prehippie lounge combo and a postgrunge lounge concept put together--they back their pretensions up. But lounge-rock tone is such a slippery devil that, listening to their supercatchy Minty Fresh debut, Life, you sometimes wondered whether they were deadpan or just dumb. On that record, the contentedly escapist "Daddy's Car" and coyly pseudoanthemic "Rise and Shine" give way to the merely moony "Celia's Dream" and "Beautiful One" before "Gordon's Gardenparty" states a credo: "Cocktails in the evening sun/Give me one." But just when you've pegged them as wimps, blond pseudoingenue Nina Persson starts chirping "Hey! Get Out of My Way"--an impressive show of strength that pales before the Black Sabbath cover.

First Band on the Moon isn't quite as tuneful as Life, but if tune-an-Sich were a viable commodity anymore we wouldn't have lounge-rock in the first place. A sated market craves 'tude as well, and the new record provides plenty. Musical director Peter Svensson reaches further for his kitsch--"Your New Cuckoo"'s electrodisco strings, "Choke"'s plink-plink doowop ostinato. And the dissonances that once distracted only occasionally from Svensson's jazzbo guitar and Lasse Johansson's right-handed keyboards become a motif--"Happy Meal II" leads with organ worthy of a '40s radio thriller, fake vibraphone swells into premonitory rock timbres on "Losers," "Never Recover" devolves into chaotic synth ravedown.

As for Persson, no more "Rise in the morning beautiful wonder boy" for this gal, an assured and now renowned performer who's well on her way toward establishing a piquant tension between her girlish voice and her womanly disillusionment. She's convinced love is pain, and whether the songs are autobiography or drama, they portray romance as equal parts masochism and lies--the only up moment, "Happy Meal II," is reprised from the debut. Sometimes, as in the pessimistic overview of "Great Divide" or the sarcastic relationship wrap of "Been It" ("it" being mother, father, sister, mistress, and whore, all for one guy), she's on top of her dilemma. Other times she's still struggling: "You'll break that foot that/you're standing on/I'll walk with the other one." And in a nice twist, the lead cut's innocuous "la la la" chorus turns out to be an old line an ex is trying out on a new "curly girlie."

There's another Black Sabbath cover, too. Believe me, you don't fully understand postmodern angst until you've heard "Iron Man" arranged for vibes and brushed cymbal.

Spin, Dec. 1996