First Band on the Moon (Mercury)
The Cardigans

By Bob Bahr

The first time you tasted coffee, you probably thought it was too bitter for anyone to drink. Now you're a java junkie. The same thing happens, but in the opposite direction, with Nina Persson's voice. The initial once-through of First Band on the Moon will have you detailing the impossibly sweet aspects of Persson's vocals -- breathy, kinda girlish, coy in an almost Lolita-like way. And even after repeated listens, songs in which her voice is up front ("Heartbreaker," "Great Divide," "Happy Meal II") and unleavened by the earnest pop music made by her bandmates are hard to take.

But the majority of the eleven songs on the Swedish band's American debut have other ways of insinuating themselves into the heart. The essence of the Cardigans' appeal is distilled in "Been It," the one song on First Band on the Moon that depends completely on traditional rock instrumentation. It's the Cardigans stripped down, and it works perfectly, with Peter Svensson's guitar in the lead role. It growls, bites and twangs in that certain way guitars do when the musician using them has a confident mastery but is going nowhere in particular beyond providing great rhythm support and lithe riffs (read: not stroking itself in a lengthy solo). Incidentally, Svensson is playing his own hooks and melodies, the liner notes say, which indicates that the bulk of the Cardigans' success may be built on his work. Of course, try to imagine the Swedish group without Persson's voice. Cloying as it may seem in the beginning, it is an integral part of the Cardigans' sonic signature.

And that signature is . . . also a variety of keyboard sounds, lots of high-end beats from cymbals, upfront guitars a la George Harrison, and an overall tone that is determinedly cheerful and centered squarely in the British pop tradition. "Never Recover" sounds like it could be playing in the background of a lost "Laugh In" episode; "Your New Cuckoo" is all early '60s pop with Latin grace notes; the radio single "Lovefool" (from the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack) is as buoyant as a precious girl dancing giddily about her room.

Snipe all you want about the Beatlesque vocal harmonies in "Losers," but just try to resist its melody, lifted thought it may be from Sgt. Pepper's squad. And the Cardigans had the good sense to remake Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" in an almost unrecognizable fashion, with meandering guitar lines, a shall we say, unique snare drum sound, and a different, viable interpretation of the song's lyrics, changing the tune from a defiant embrace of alienation and vengeance to a third-person sympathetic outreach for a spurned soul, with a chorus that has Persson sighing "oh, iron man" in an almost seductive manner. Her heart flutters at his innate strength. Headbangers may call it blasphemy, but the rest of us will call it amusing --especially the frivolous scat/vocalizing at the end.

The Cardigans include the lyrics to their songs in the CD booklet, and that is a mixed blessing. In case you aren't listening closely enough, the lyrics listed will set you straight on the notion that this is an empty-headed pop band. There may not be much knocking around the heads of the Cardigans, or at least it doesn't translate all that agreeably into English, but what's there has a bit of a bite, even if the bite is self-deprecation. "Lovefool," for instance, with its chorus of "Love me, love me/Say that you love me," is about one half of a love affair that is exiting the scene due to lack of interest, and Persson is telling him to pretend that he loves her and stay. Ick.

"Your New Cuckoo," which boasts a chorus full of "la la la's" and "Let's say forever, let's say it's true . . . Let's come together, me and you," is actually a rather pointed jab at an old lover who is lying in a familiar way to his new "curly girlie." Even the most optimistic tunes -- "Happy Meal II," for example -- have a desperate side to them. The Cardigans are lovable because their music is fun, but without this slight bitterness, the sugar buzz would trail off quickly, leaving nothing.