The Cardigans, Estrad, Gavle, Sweden

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The Independent Culture

When The Cardigans' guitarist Peter Svensson first heard the A Camp solo project that his band's lead singer, Nina Persson, recorded with Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, he was miffed. "How come you don't sing as well as that with us?" he asked her. Of course, Persson wasn't deliberately withholding her talent - she had simply found her voice and stumbled across a more simpatico vehicle for it. When she and Svensson went on to write a batch of similarly simpatico Cardigans songs, moreover, the result was this year's Long Gone Before Daylight, an organic, beautifully crafted record which some Swedish critics have described as the finest rock album ever to come out of that country.

Oddly, the album has been somewhat overlooked in Britain. Hence I've had to travel to snowy Gavle, two hours' drive north of Stockholm, to hear it performed live. Big on pinewood panelling, tonight's venue seems a strange mix of sauna and conference centre. The Cardigans' stage-set is seductive, however, a number of amber-lit, antique-looking chandeliers connoting a warmth and intimacy which is soon echoed in the band's fine, often subtle playing.

Easy reach of cliché aside, it is difficult to understand why Persson is sometimes described as an ice maiden. True, she is not the most demonstrative of singers, but she can reel you in with one elegantly arched eyebrow. When the group open with the new album's stand-out track, "And Then You Kissed Me", its fairground organ seguing to acoustic guitar and vocal, it is immediately apparent just how much Persson's voice has matured. The tuning problems that once plagued her in live settings have gone, and her sometimes husky, sometimes breathy tones are deliciously disarming.

If there is a problem, it is the incongruity of some of the older material performed. "My Favourite Game" and "Love Me, Love Me" are still great pop songs, but the latter, bouncy and frivolous as Tigger in a tutu, jars amid a set that emphasises the dark, Nordic beauty of new songs such as "Communication".

Still, the overall impression is of a band in glorious transition: all but one of Long Gone Before Daylight's meticulously arranged tracks are aired, and in sharp contrast to the usual state of affairs, it is the newies that everyone wants to hear.

There are moments when The Cardigans sound like a younger, infinitely more hip Fleetwood Mac. This is particularly noticeable during Persson and Svensson's mid-set acoustic slot - especially as Persson has now swapped her black jeans for a floaty dress à la Stevie Nicks, and Svensson's guitar picking on "If There Is a Chance" seems to owe much to Lindsey Buckingham.

The stylistic surprises keep coming, too, the band closing with a distinctive take on Black Sabbath's "Changes", a song that Ozzy Osbourne and his daughter Kelly have just re-recorded as a Christmas single. Packing gorgeous three-part harmonies, The Cardigans' version makes for a surprisingly soothing denouement. It is nigh-on impossible to imagine that Ozzy and Kelly's version will better it.

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