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Shiny Happy People?

Sweden's Cardigans aren't as warm and fuzzy as they let on

On the surface, Sweden is a land of crystal lakes, rolling rivers and snowcapped mountains, with lots of happy blond people enjoying the country's famed social welfare system. But it's also a nation perilously deprived of sunlight much of the year, which very well might indicate that underneath that shimmery exterior a bit of gloom looms in the country's soul.

Sure, that won't come as a surprise to film fans who've seen any of Ingmar Bergman's moody epics, or theater buffs who've sat through the collected works of August Strindberg. But pop-music wise, Sweden is best known as the land of Abba and Ace of Base, paragons of lightness both. In contrast, the Cardigans are as much a light-and-dark paradox as the country in which they were born and raised. Formed in 1992 in the strict Lutheran town of Jsnksping, then moved in 1994 to the southern metropolis of Malms, the young five-piece makes songs that on first listen sound like some of the brightest, most charming pop tunes ever to come out of Sweden -- but on second listen sound like something just a little bit more.

The band's first U.S. release, early 1996's Life (actually a compilation of their first two Swedish CDs, Emmerdale and Life), is a sort of time warp into a hyper-hook dimension, a half-imagined past where innocence and artifice skip innocuously hand in hand. Life's cover features lead singer Nina Persson -- dressed in her cutest skater's outfit and smiling widely -- beaming Scandinavian beauty, while inside she sings gleefully of pure and simple love ("Carnival"), teen escapism ("Daddy's Car") and Alice-in-Wonderland-like soirees ("Gordon's Gardenparty"). The disc's music -- an all-analog, color-coordinated cocktail of light jazz guitar chords, finger snaps, tambourines, flutes, organs and muted horns -- is straight out of the Burt Bacharach songbook, and the band's easy-listening tendencies ensured their role in the cloyingly sweet and heavily ironic lounge revival.

The truth is, though, that the Cardigans aren't all sugar and fluff, and they don't know much about martini-swilling fads. Listen carefully to Life, and you'll discover that in the Cardigans' Sweden, things are as dreary as they are cheery. More serious sentiments add emotional weight to the Cardigans' liltingly gorgeous melodies -- in lyrics that are grounded in hard reality and sobering self-awareness. On "Sick and Tired," Persson sings, "Sick and tired and homeless / With no one here to sing for / Tired of being weightless / For all these looking good boys."

Such blunt contrasts are intended, and they're thoroughly imbedded in the band's methodology. Bassist/lyricist Magnus Sveningsson is happy to detail the Cardigans' covert operations, and what the group hopes to achieve as a result.

"I really hope we can fool listeners to think we only play happy songs," he says. "I hope people will like the chorus, but maybe the third or fourth time they listen to a song they'll realize the lyric wasn't as happy as they thought. We like to hide things beneath the surface. You have to have some dirt in the music."

One of the most direct manifestations of the band's dark underbelly is the pleasure they derive from dousing Black Sabbath songs in their own mellow pop glaze. Life features an icy, organ-driven torch song version of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," while the group's latest release, First Band on the Moon, contains a take on "Iron Man" that's way closer to Portishead-style trip hop than Ozzy-brand heavy metal. Far from being the Cardigans's idea of post-modern irony, the band's Sabbath fixation is sincere -- part tribute to a favorite group and part musical challenge.

"It's pretty far from being a joke," Sveningsson says. "We really love the songs and wanted to rearrange them enough so they sound like original Cardigans songs. [Songwriter and guitarist] Peter [Svensson] worked like hell to rearrange the songs. He took away the heavy riffs, which are the first signs of the original, but kept the melodies, which are so strong. So the songs were still alive."

The Sabbath covers, in fact, say more about where the band is coming from than any Bacharach or lounge-kitsch reference. "I'm actually the only one who owns a Burt Bacharach album," Sveningsson claims. "And since I don't write the music, it has never been an influence."

Instead, you're more likely to find records by the Scorpions or Iron Maiden in the band members' personal music collections. Both Svensson and Sveningsson, the group's founders, were devout hard rockers before Svensson learned some jazz at music school and Sveningsson discovered the Cure. Still, deep scars remain from their metal days.

"I think we all prefer a decent Pantera song," Sveningsson says. "I've got a couple of easy-listening albums, and a couple of tunes are really nice, but I think it's a bit much sometimes, a bit too sweet. I think we're too much hard rockers to really fit in that scene."

Sveningsson credits producer Tore Johansson with Life's undeniably light retro-pop sound; it was Johansson who saw potential in the band's straightforward pop songs and infused them with glamour and style. "When we came down to Malms we were extremely fresh, 19 or 17 [years old], and Tore is 15 years older than I am. Tore felt we had something special but needed a sound. We didn't have a really clear picture of how we'd like to sound, and what he did with our songs was great."

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