"This is the hottest gig we have ever
played," proclaims Peter Svensson. "And I am wearing plastic pants,"
adds Nina Persson, helpfully.
It is, indeed, swelteringly hot in this rammed ballroom. Which may explain why the sound system appears to have eaten itself, swamping every crystalline sparkle of pin-sharp Nordic ennui in muddy, murky sludge. Or why these schizophrenic Swedes are visibly flagging as they struggle to wring some dynamism from their sweat-soaked, soul-starved set.
The Cardigans used to be brittle, timid little kittens live. But that was before Romeo & Juliet and 'Lovefool' and 400,000 UK sales of their bravely modernist career swerve, 'Gran Turismo'. Nina Persson has pulled off something of a Kylie since then, ditching indie-schmindie fluffiness for a sharply-coiffured, future-pop siren look with sleazoid overtones. In Glasgow she wears figure-hugging PVC plus garish belt'n'bangles while guitar man Peter is all blazing tattoos and slicked-back razor quiff. The message: we rock hard and then stay up pretty damn late afterwards, honest.
The music gets a fractious makeover too: neither a faithful facsimile of the processed trip-hop of 'Gran Turismo' nor the crisply nostalgic twinkle of previous albums, but some mutant hybrid. Which can sound pretty ungainly, as the queasy trundle of 'Marvel Hill' or the ploddingly clumsy 'Erase/Rewind' demonstrate. There has always been a frazzled, quietly demented undertow to even the sunniest Cardies composition, so the masochistic 'Step On Me' and weary 'Been It' slot comfortably into their newly trashed sound. Pretty soon, though, this lack of focus begins to grate. The overall effect is disorienting, like hearing the band when you're drunk - or when they are.
Nina wears her vampish new stage persona with studied cool, but is this really the butterfly who was always itching to shed her caterpillar skin of pastel-shaded retro-whimsy and fly free? This Nina is undeniably more animated and confident than before, but we still can't help suspecting that this whole Slut Goddess schtick is a tad artificial, a way of replacing one mask with another - or perhaps even a coldly pragmatic marketing ploy to target the all-important Shirley Manson demographic in Arenaville, Illinois.
Only at the end is the mask allowed to slip a little. Set-closing duo 'Do You Believe' and 'Hanging Around' are both played as high-kicking, turbo-riffing metal bruisers, replacing the band's traditional Sabbath covers with equally raucous, self-penned alternatives. Crashing back with booming encores of 'Paralyzed' and a punchy, cranked-up 'My Favourite Game', the band finally transcend both retro-kitsch and modernist cool with a sustained blast of lusty recklessness.
The Cardigans have improved in great leaps, trashing their jumble-sale past without entirely mastering their haute couture future. But despite grand tunes galore, they still struggle to unleash the Swede soul music from the depths of their Nordic permafrost. Defeated by muggy heat and murky sound, the Cardies unravel without touching greatness.
This Review was Originally on the NME Review
the NME Review Page
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