Albums Revisited – The Cardigans: ‘First Band On The Moon’

Artwork

In January 2015, Menace Beach released debut album Ratworld to a phalanx of reviews hailing the return of ‘90’s indie. Dear old ‘90’s indie, stinking up the joint like all that incense we burnt back then. Not that it’s overt what this ‘90’s indie vibe actually represents (at least beyond the odd, fuggy adjective thrown about in the music press). Kula Shaker? Mansun? Echobelly? The old, drunk guy who used to stand on the High Street, tunelessly strumming his guitar whilst threatening to get his “little chap” out should passers-by fail to furnish his collection plate with coin?

(I was a huge fan of the latter; bought all of his records…)

Attempting to define the spirit of something as broad and fickle as ‘90’s indie sounds like a rum sport, and because I’m not Steve Lamacq there’s not a great deal I can bring to the party. Except: The Cardigans. A band whose operational parameters confused critics and punters alike by almost slotting into ‘90’s indie canon. I say “almost”, because here was a band that celebrated twee, but did so in what appeared to be an aggressively commercial context. You know, hit records and all that buzz, and an acquiescence to the mainstream that at times was a turn-off.

For example: when released as a single, ‘Been It’ (track #2 on ’96’s First Band On The Moon) had the word “whore” – the pay-off line in the chorus – obscured by a guitar lick. No matter that it’s utterly integral to the narrative; it’s a bad word. A naughty word. The type of word that, should it leap from the radio and take root in impressionable minds, is likely to encourage insubordination, godlessness, Communism, impure thoughts and bad posture. I don’t recall Sarah Records ever cleansing their twee pop output of naughty words – but then again, as every Sarah fan I’ve ever encountered is a hopeless degenerate (with bad posture), maybe there is something to be said for sanctity of song being subservient to censorship.

And then there’s ‘Lovefool’, an FM-friendly slice of commercial pop music that didn’t generate a great deal of fuss when it first appeared; that had to wait until Baz Luhrmann picked up it for his garish and ungainly screen version of Romeo + Juliet, after which the repackaged single became disappointingly ubiquitous. I say “disappointingly”, because ‘Lovefool’ is by far the least interesting element about First Band on the Moon; as an entity it has its peepers firmly peeled upon its chart position, and whilst it did introduce a whole new demographic to the band’s material, it certainly felt at the time like a sell-out.

The history of pop is littered with acts who, in pursuit of ambition – that once in a lifetime opportunity to be the biggest band in the world – left behind any humble or intimate proclivity to their sound. The Cardigans never became bigger than Jesus, their transition into a stadium rock act (and I’m thinking specifically of 1998’s rather butch Gran Turismo album) never entirely convincing… which somewhat leaves First Band on the Moon hanging. A period piece. That final trip to a twee and summery sound the band had outgrown.

Which would be the end of the story, were if not for the fact that First Band on the Moon is actually a great little listen; you just need to park the cynicism first (and possibly skip ‘Lovefool’).

There are a few reasons for this; the delicate subjugation of songcraft, through which the triumvirate writing team (vocalist Nina Persson, guitarist Peter Svensson, bass player Magnus Sveningsson) split duties to beguiling effect. A cuteness of musicality: the flute on opening track ‘Your New Cuckoo'; the languid trumpet on ‘Heartbreaker'; ‘Great Divide’, and its application of strings to accentuate melody. The brave cover version, Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ reimagined as distended loungecore. And perhaps most importantly of all: the production, which pivots across the flatness of Bengt Lagerberg’s percussion – it’s as if he’s hitting cardboard boxes instead of his drunk kit, which gifts each song added context in a manner that a fuller sound could never do.

’90’s indie? I’m still far from certain what such a construct entails. There’s too many variables (plus that Menace Beach record isn’t helping any, either). First Band on the Moon may, or may not qualify (and I’m probably not too bothered either way – it’s all, ultimately just words). All I know is a decent record when I hear one – a from Sweden with love affair. Just don’t go all mainstream should you wish to pique my interest. Or hide your whores behind the call for public decency.