THE CARDIGANS: EMMERDALE (1994)
1) Sick & Tired; 2) Black Letter Day; 3) In The Afternoon; 4) Over The Water; 5) After All...; 6) Cloudy Sky; 7) Our Space; 8) Rise & Shine; 9) Celia Inside; 10) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; 11) Seems Hard; 12) Last Song.
It is a little hard to believe that a band naming itself after such an essentially British piece of clothing, and naming their first album after such an essentially British piece of soap opera, would be so utterly Swedish — but yes, at the core of The Cardigans are Swedish musicians Magnus Svenigsson and Peter Svensson, who not only play, respectively, the bass and the guitars, but also compose most of the songs, and then, in good ABBA tradition, hand them over to Swedish singer Nina Persson for the vocal treatment. Completing the lineup are Lars-Olof Johansson on guitar and piano, and Bengt Lagerberg on percussion — both of them good Swedes, too.
The oddest thing about The Cardigans is that, by all accounts, Svenigsson and Svensson originally came from a heavy metal pedigree — not surprising for Scandinavia, and indirectly still reflected in the band's inclusion of ʽSabbath Bloody Sabbathʼ on their debut album. However, it is unlikely that the average metal fan will be much pleased to hear what they ultimately did to the song (and, in fact, it is quite a hoot to browse through all the irate, blood-thirsty YouTube comments on the tune). You know something's not quite right when the instrument selected to introduce the melody of one of Iommi's crunchiest songs ever is... a vibraphone — and then, in a matter of seconds, the song takes shape as a «twee-lounge» ditty, with soft jangly guitars, jazzy percussion, a guitar solo that's more Donovan than heavy metal, and, most essential of all, vocals that are more Astrud Gilberto than Ozzy. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how one could possibly do a better job remaking ʽSabbath Bloody Sabbathʼ as ʽThe Girl From Ipanemaʼ.
Of course, all that metalhead anger could be easily tempered if people would just stop to remember that behind all the heaviness, Black Sabbath were very much of a pop band — and there is no better reminder of this than the way The Cardigans launch into the "nobody would ever let you know..." bridge section, which was always extremely poppy from the beginning. (To somewhat redeem the Sabsters, Svensson and Svennigsson omit the heaviest part of the tune in the mid-section, possibly because its mountain-crumbling riff was too hard to transpose to vibraphone.) The remake is glorious in its own right, taking our mind off the crude heaviness of the song and reminding us of its melodic, and even psychological, complexity — and in this stylistics, it sounds like Nina is offering a gentle consolation for the poor deluded addressee of the song, rather than lambasting him with heavy scorn, the way Ozzy and Tony do.
Besides, the remake totally fits into the overall style of the entire record; people unfamiliar with Sabbath would never even begin to guess that Emmerdale took a «weird turn» by the time of its tenth track. It's all stylized like that — a musical candy-house, one part baroque, one part pastoral, one part Sesame Street, one part midnight jazz, with Svensson's and Svennigsson's first-rate melodies as the base and Nina's «melancholic kitten» delivery as the coating. Yes, that voice can come across as too irritatingly oversexed, but it shouldn't be much of a problem for anyone who likes vocal jazz (or twee pop, for that matter) on the whole, and it fits the music to a tee. Besides, it's not as if we were dealing with «vocal sexploitation» here — if there's any general associations that these songs truly evoke, it would be the colorful sunshine supermanry of Donovan, with a bit of Wizard of Oz thrown in.
Emotionality here runs the gamut from mild depression and disillusionment (ʽSick & Tiredʼ, led by a folk-poppy flute part and tremendously «toe-tappish» despite the overall gray mood) to upbeat optimism — ʽRise & Shineʼ is one of the best twee-pop songs ever written, riding an awesome wave of internalized joy before it bursts out in a genius chorus (that "rise and shine... rise and shine, my sister" bit sounds awfully familiar, probably because it is so simple, but I can't quite put my finger on any exact possible source). Curiously, ʽRise & Shineʼ was actually an early song, written and released as early as 1992 (its success secured Nina's status with the band, since it was Svensson himself who used to handle lead vocals before that); ʽBlack Letter Dayʼ and ʽSick & Tiredʼ would follow later as additional singles from the album, but on Emmerdale, the sequencing is reversed, and the record begins with «darker» songs before moving on to the more positive ones, gradually brightening your day.
Come to think of it, there is not a single bad song on the album; every track has something to offer in the way of a great vocal hook, a moody twist, or an attractive instrumental riff. The style and instrumentation may be cohesive and perhaps even monotonous at times, but this is well compensated for by the inventiveness of the writers and arrangers. The gently waltzing ʽBlack Letter Dayʼ, other than the vocal seductiveness (could the lines "I drank all that I could, more than I should" ever sound more sweet and innocent?), has a brilliant jazzy bassline whose melodicity may well remind you of McCartney's use of the bass as a magic pop wand on Sgt. Pepper. ʽIn The Afternoonʼ is a really great song about winter boredom that manages to poeticize said boredom like nothing else (this is, like, Cinderella's song on a chore-free day).
Even the few songs where they completely dispense with the rhythmic base are excellent: ʽAfter All...ʼ is straightforward lounge jazz, with jazz piano chords, a jazz guitar solo, and a dreamy, lullaby-like vocal melody, and it's as lovely as any vocal jazz can be (not to mention the weird ambiguity of the words, which can jump from love-struck giddiness to love-scared fright and confusion within the same verse). ʽLast Songʼ concludes the record in stern, somber chamber-pop mode, with a string quartet backing Nina as she sings about the death of a friend — a little too stiff, perhaps, but without any traces of corniness. It is actually a perfect final flourish for a record that, at first, may sound fluffy, but in the end, demands to be taken seriously; and it wouldn't be, for that matter, until Arcade Fire's Funeral that we'd have another finale like this (not that it's anything but sheer coincidence, but I thought that a mention of Funeral in a Cardigans review could help drive their stock prices a bit, along with that of Paul McCartney).
Anyway, the style of the album may be doing it a disservice among the hip crowds who like their stuff harsher, harder, and less retro-oriented, but the music is uniformly excellent, and although the band went on making albums that acquired far more popularity (Emmerdale was, in fact, not even released internationally until several years lately), to my mind, they never made a more consistent or complete package than this one. Thumbs up without question. Also note that newer releases throw on an extra four tracks that, although excellent in their own rights, were actually taken from the original release of Life, their second LP, because its original international release replaced them with five tracks from Emmerdale (yes, confusing story worthy of the discographic horrors with UK bands in the mid-Sixties, but there you go — in 1994, conceptuality and integrity in some parts of the world continued to be spat on just as they were in 1964. Music business as usual again).