These days it's getting harder to tell the real pop twerps from the hip parodists--both of whom make music sweeter and more dizzying than cherry wine. Take Sweden's Cardigans, for example: On one hand, they work the same delicious Bacharach lounge jazz and gooey '60s girl swoons as Pizzicato Five, a group whose retrokitsch is delivered with a big, fake-eyelashed wink. On the other hand, the Cardigans come from a land that gave us Abba and Ace of Base, sincere pop legends if ever there were. The Cardigans, it seems, could go either way, and their subtle blend of pop-for-pop's-sake with pop-for-joke's-sake makes their first American release, Life, all the more a modernist gem.
There's no use digging below the surface of Life's amazingly catchy opening quartet of tunes. All the joy to be extracted lies right on the surface: "Carnival"'s loopy organ and punchy beat is all cotton candy and merry-go-rounds; "Daddy's Car" is a fun-fun-fun ride to the up-up-and-away; "Fine" soars heavenward while "Rise & Shine" is mile-a-minute perk-me-up. From there, though, "Our Space" ventures deeper, into darker and moodier atmospherics and a trip-hoppy electronic shuffle. Singer Nina Persson's crystalline lullaby voice keeps it all sounding innocent as hell, but when she sinks her candy-coated teeth into a Black Sabbath cover ("Sabbath Bloody Sabbath") she exposes a few sinister cavities. By the time she closes the album, exulting "No one can be happier than me!" the effect is eerie enough for David Lynch. With Life, the Cardigans give us pop till it hurts. --Roni Sarig