Don't let lovely sound fool you Music: Cardigans' seriously catchy pop conceals a deeper, darker edge. It's all in good fun.

March 26, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Taken at face value, as Top-40 singles often are, the Cardigans seem little more than a pleasantly frothy pop-rock combo. "Lovefool," the group's effortlessly catchy breakthrough hit, certainly sounds simple enough. Between Nina Persson's wispily pretty voice and the quiet percolation of the rhythm arrangement, the tune sounds about as deep as a toothpaste jingle.

Until you start paying attention, that is. Once you get past the blithe cheer of its melody, "Lovefool" reveals itself to be a dark and disturbing tale of romantic desperation, with a protagonist who would rather be lied to than left alone. "I don't care if you really care/As long as you don't go," coos Persson. "Love me, love me/Pretend that you love me ..." It's an anthem for lovers with low self-esteem.

Nor is "Lovefool" the only song on the Swedish quintet's current album, "First Band on the Moon," that mines mellow melodies with disturbing lyrics and a deadpan delivery. The seemingly cheery "Been It" pushes romantic devotion to self-abnegating extremes, while "Iron Man" recasts the Black Sabbath classic as a bizarre bit of easy-listening.

What on earth are these people thinking?

"We're just trying to be more than one-dimensional when we make music, so there will be depth to it," says keyboardist Lars-Olof Johansson, over the phone from a tour stop in Tampa. "There are often strange lyrics to the songs, so there are two dimensions, at least, to make them a bit more interesting."

As Johansson explains, that multi-tiered approach grew out of the band's own search for artistic balance. "The first album we released was 'Emmerdale,' and it was only released in Sweden and Japan," he says. "That was considered quite dull, and a bit depressive. We were a serious band.

"We thought, 'There is definitely more to Cardigans than that.' And so we released 'Life,' which was a more jolly, happy, kicky sort of just-for-the-fun-of-it [album]. We were still serious when we made it, but there were more happy tunes.

"Then everybody thought we were just a jolly, happy, shiny band," he says. "So we decided to make 'First Band on the Moon,' which I think draws on both worlds. It's both 'Emmerdale' and 'Life.' "

That blend of dark and light, serious and silly, has won over critics both in the United States and Europe. But among the most enthusiastic reviews were comments from Ozzy Osbourne, the original singer for Black Sabbath.

"I went to see the Cardigans, and they did 'Iron Man,' " Osbourne said recently. "But in a funny sort of a way, it was more creepy than the way I did it. Because she sang with such a sweet voice, and the lyric was such a heavy lyric, it made it darker. It was like a beauty and the beast. It was kind of like the beauty singing the beast's lyrics. It makes it sound even more demonic, in a funny sort of way.

"It was the first time somebody took it away and did something different to the song, instead of doing a blatant cop, you know? I was very impressed."

"Oh, that was good news," says Johansson, upon hearing Osbourne's quote. "I think I know what he means. The arrangement to the original version is like, when the song starts, you get this protection. You think, 'This might be scary. This might be very offensive.' But when you listen to our version, it's like, 'Oh, this is one of those cute songs.' And then these lyrics come out of that, and you get these goosebumps. You think, 'Oh, what is that?'

"You're standing with your guard down when you hear our version. So, yes. I agree. But I think, still, there is nothing that compares to the original one."

At the moment, the Cardigans are on tour opening for Beck (they play the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., this evening), a pairing that puts them mostly in mid-sized arenas -- which, it turns out, is exactly where they want to be.

"That is how big that we can really manage," says Johansson. "We don't want to play bigger than these college places, really, because then it gets out of reach. It's like you can't see the audience, and then it's too strange, I think."

He admits that performing at festivals, like the massive Reading Festival in Britain, can be "kind of a rush.

"There was like 80,000 people standing there," he says. "But I prefer the smaller places, definitely. All of us really enjoy touring here in America, I think."

Stop, look, listen

When: 8: 30 tonight

Where: Opening for Beck at the Patriot Center, George Mason University

Tickets: $16.50, general admission

L Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 703-993-3000 for information

To hear excerpts from the Cardigans' new release, "First Band on the Moon," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6154. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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