CARDIACS

OVERVIEW:
An incredible and absurdly underrated band. They take a little work to get into, but once you do nearly every release and side-project has great merit. Some of them are downright genius. Describing their sound is tough – they’re truly truly unique. They mix oddball pop instincts with crazily complex arrangements. They switch on a dime from thrashy and chaotic to fragile and ethereal. You’ll just have to experience ’em yourself!

THE ALBUMS:

A Bus For A Bus For A Bus (Single)
The Obvious Identity
Toy World
The Seaside
Mr. And Mrs. Smith And Mr. Drake  (Side-Project)
A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window
On Land In The Sea *
Archives Cardiacs
Songs For Ships And Irons *
Day Is Gone EP
Heaven Born And Ever Bright
The Sea Nymphs  (The Sea Nymphs – Side Project)
All That Glitters Is A Maresnest
Tim Smith’s Extra Special Oceanlandworld (Tim Smith Solo)
Sing To God *
Hazel EP (Spratley’s Japs – Side Project)
Pony (Spratley’s Japs – Side Project)
Guns *
William D. Drake (William Drake Solo)
Special Garage Concerts
Ditzy Scene EP/Single
Briny Hooves (William Drake Solo)
Leader Of The Starry Skies/A Loyal Companion  (Tribute Album)

___________________________________________________________________________
A BUS FOR A BUS FOR A BUS (SINGLE)    (1979)

(no grade)

The first release from an early Cardiacs line-up – this is merely the title song and two brief B-sides. The main attraction is very much in line with the material on the next two records, though it’s actually better recorded! It’s a proggy, abrasive, in-yr-face tune with a cool fractured guitar riff and a totally unhinged vocal performance from Tim Smith. The other two songs are neat too – “Food On The Wall” is a minute long and very wacky, while “A Cake For Bertie’s Party” is not particularly memorable but quite fun nonetheless.

___________________________________________________________________________
THE OBVIOUS IDENTITY   (1980)

C

They were still called “Cardiac Arrest” at this point, and this is that same early line-up — while Tim Smith sounds just as insane as his future self, and the band tries hard to be completely batshit…they’re also ragged as hell. The band’s early recordings were distributed on cassettes at their concerts, but never saw proper releases. This one is a fairly unpleasant listen due to the terrible recording quality – it sounds like it was recorded to 4 track in a garage at the bottom of a well.  But the biggest problem is that the material isn’t even close to the level of classic Cardiacs. HOWEVER – the seeds are planted here, and Tim Smith’s utterly unique and bizarre song-writing style is already taking shape. There are some cool riffs, and the energy is almost completely BANG-BANG-BANG-SWITCH-BANG-BANG -SWITCH-BANG-PAUSE! BANG BANG! That spastic insanity is a huge part of what this band does best, but on later Cardiacs records repeat listens bring out the brilliant compositions behind the nutty surfaces. These early recordings often just sound out of control and messy. The album starts and ends strong – “Visiting Hours” and “Pip As Uncle Dick…” are two of the most substantial compositions, and “A Balloon For Berties Party” is easily the best and most fully formed tune on here (it’s also the “epic” finale). “Pilf” has a VERY exciting guitar part. “To Go Off And Things” is an awesome in-your-face tune, but it would be later re-recorded with much better sound quality and tighter band-interplay.  The songs on here generally don’t really distinguish themselves enough from later and similar and much better tracks. As a result, this is epitome of a FANS ONLY release, but big fans shouldn’t avoid hearing it at least once (if they can stomach the awful recordings).

___________________________________________________________________________
TOY WORLD  (1981)

B

Already MUCH better! This is another cassette, and once again the sound is atrocious. But….it’s BETTER than the atrocious on the previous record, and to make matters even sweeter, the material has greatly improved. This record even has early versions of two future Cardiacs classics (“Is This The Life” and “Nurses Whispering Verses”). Unlike the previous album, I’m pretty sure that if this one was properly recorded it would be an essential part of the catalog for these guys. I’m all for lo-fi albums (it works wonders for Guided By Voices, for example), but this band just needs POWER in their recordings. Anyway, poor production will plague most of their records – but the song-writing and playing always carries it through, as is the case most of the time on here. “Icky Qualms” is a simply insane punky trashy number that kicks off the record (after an intro instrumental) with total mania. “As Cold As Can Be In An English Sea” is a powerhouse epic with a circular sounding muted guitar riff, and it sports some trademark Cardiacs tropes (particularly as regards the volume and rhythmic dynamics, which go from 0 to 10 and every which way as quickly as possible, whenever possible, yet still make perfect sense once you’ve sorted those shifts out for yourself). The best thing on here (besides the two early versions of the classics mentioned previously) is “A BIG NOISE in a Toy World” – with it’s Police-esque verse groove and darkly bouncy Brit-pop-esque chorus, it’s probably my favorite track on these early cassette records. Barring the fact that the climax of this record would end up on better records in better clothing (though the early “Nurses Whispering Verses” is really great), this is a solid record all the way through. A shame about that sound!!!

___________________________________________________________________________
THE SEASIDE   (1984)

B+

Another giant improvement in writing – and the band sounds tighter, and the sound is five million times better. Actually, in some ways, this is my favorite sounding Cardiacs album of them all. It lacks the production issues that would mar some of the following records – everything basically just sounds live and organic and rocking and good lo-fi. This opens with two of my all time favorite Smith compositions – “Jibber And Switch” alternates between completely absurd verses full of start-stops (with the stops hilariously punctuated by telephone rings), and a speedy proggy melodic chorus that just rules. Then comes “Gina Lollabrigida,” which is based around a Motown-on-crack groove and cram packed with great hooks. Nothing else on here is QUITE as good as those two, but others come close. “A Wooden Fish On Wheels” has an insane drum sound for it’s punk-disco beat – they’d never really attempt something like it ever again – and it’s quite bad-ass. “Ice Spot and a Dot On The Dog” is the best non-Gina-Jibber track – it sort of steals the “Trampled Under Foot” Clav riff from Zeppelin and gives it to a guitar, who proceeds to play it as if he’s a punk Steve Howe. As a whole, it’s another crazy and creative and melodic and bizarre Smith composition. This is a hard band to write about, as their music is just too unique to do justice to in words. This album has a way better recording of “To Go Off And Things,” and confirms that song’s ferocity. My big problem with this record is “Hope Day,” which is big long epic full of many of Tim’s favorite tricks, but lacking coherence and memorability. Anyway, this is probably the first Cardiacs album a casual fan should consider listening to…it’s not quite a full statement like the ones around the corner (I think it’s even a compilation of tracks), but it’s got some jaw-droppingly amazing material nonetheless.

___________________________________________________________________________
MR AND MRS SMITH AND MR DRAKE  (SIDE PROJECT)  (1984)

B+

This record is thoroughly gorgeous! An offshoot of the main Cardiacs line-up, later to record another record under the name ‘Sea Nymphs,” this project is comprised solely of guru Tim Smith, saxophonist/vocalist Sarah Smith, and keyboardist William D. Drake, all members of the “classic” Cardiacs line-up.  So it’s basically a Cardiacs record…the big difference being the material. Instead of a sonic assault, this is a quiet and meditative album, with no drums, , and a heavy reliance on medieval melodies and sea chanty-esque songs. For all it’s sound and fury, Cardiacs has an incredibly delicate softer side. The odd and endearing melodies and chamber arrangements on here are totally different from the proggy bombast of the records proper, yet they all share the same warped and beautiful sensibility. This reminds me a lot of some of the late 70s R.I.O.-offshoots like Art Bears, and there’s also a soft-side-of-Gentle Giant vibe at play too. But this album isn’t off-putting at all – the melodies are lovely, and the atmosphere is very inviting (if, of course, you’re used to art weirdos making records). This is a very short album, and works best as a whole – there are definitely distinct compositions on here, but it’s more of a mood piece. My favorites, though, are “Camouflage” and Bill Drake’s awesome “To My Piano From Mr. Drake.” The latter may actually be the best thing on here. This is a really nice piece of work, and even if not an essential listen for Cardiacs newcomer, certainly well worth getting to know.

___________________________________________________________________________
A LITTLE MAN AND A HOUSE AND THE WHOLE WORLD WINDOW  (1988)

A-

This is the first “real” Cardiacs album – it was “properly” recorded, and fully constructed as a start-to-finish album (though it does include re-vamped versions of some older material). It’s also probably the most overtly old-school sounding album construction of the band’s career, with lots of repeated motifs and epic moves. I don’t think it’s really fair to call this a “prog” band, but this is definitely their proggiest record. There are strings, the volume and maniacal structures are dialed back a BIT, and there’s a directly majestic vibe to much of it (lots of Cardiacs music would showcase that majesty, but it seems more pronounced here, and less punk-infused). This is the classic line-up, so we get lots of keyboards and sax parts – and some unappealing canned production – but like nearly every Cardiacs record, the compositions and performances are mostly amazing. The record opens with the incredible epic title track – with it’s “that’s the way we all go” refrain, and creative ever-evolving arrangement, it’s one of the best Cardiacs productions of all. “In a City Lining” jumps from big wall-of-sound verses to a ska-inspired “chorus,” with some wacky Zappa parts interwoven between. It’s never been a favorite of mine, but it’s still damn impressive. The most famous Cardiacs song is the re-vamped “Is This The Life?” Cure-like in both writing and execution, it’s probably the least Cardiacs-y song in their catalog (save for one out-of-place complex section toward the end) – those drawn into the band via that single were probably appalled by the weirdo experimental circus music they found on this record (!) This is a good time to mention that the re-issued CDs of this album slot “I’m Eating In Bed” right after “City Lining.” It totally destroys the album’s flow, and throws too much craziness into the first half…I prefer to think of that (amazing) song as a non-album tune – it’s one of the most intense Smith songs on record, but it doesn’t quite fit here. The rest of the record is great – weird, complex, and powerful. Like most of Smith’s compositions, these take a WHILE to grow on you – they sounded very messy to me on first listens, and I was overwhelmed by the complexity and volume of everything – but eventually they start to sound like pop songs. “The Breakfast Line” is a wonderful work of multi-part sing-along insanity, “Victory Egg” is a glorious chant in the vein of “All Spectacular,” and the concluding “The Whole World Window” goes for that epic majestic vibe described above, and nails it perfectly – and it’s very Peter Hammill-esque. I think the band would get better and go deeper- but this is certainly one of their key albums.

___________________________________________________________________________
ON LAND AND IN THE SEA  (1989)

A+

Oh man. What to do about this record? You see, this album took a long time to grow on me. It’s not an inviting album. At first the songs seemed like a bunch of random chord changes in search of genuine hooks. The production is in your face, relentless, ugly (on the surface) — the songs are extremely complex, and full of noises and ideas that were so initially off-putting, I almost gave up on the thing. But not only did this grow on me – I’m very comfortable calling this a work of utter genius. If you can find your way into this record, the rewards are seriously incredible. This is definitely the peak of early Cardiacs, and it sounds like Tim and the gang were almost maniacally inspired when making this record. The album takes the vibe of “Little House” and adds a hefty does of almost hardcore punk energy (but when people describe the “punk” side of this band, it’s more due to the relentless pace and the “pop on speed” aspects – the general attitude isn’t punky at all). Most of the songs are shorter, the ska influences aren’t very pronounced anymore, the prog ones are less “prog” and more “experimental rock,” and the group really sounds like they’ve forged their own unique genre here. There are many moments of absolute lunacy on here, and just as many of utter magic and beauty. I’ve grown to love every track, and I think that once you unravel the complexity of the compositions, this is a great record to just crank up loud and listen to as a whole. But some of the highlights for me include the catchy and brilliant opener “Two Bites Of Cherry,” the anthemic “Leader of the Starry Skies,” the stunningly arranged and mind-blowing “Mare’s Nest,” the warped pop of “The Stench Of Honey,” and the intense  closer “The Everso Closely Guarded Line.” There’s also the haunting and menacing miniatures “I Hold My Love In My Arms” and “Horsehead,” the pummeling “Baby Heart Dirt,” and the simpler rocker “Arnald.” Fans might notice I’m leaving out the two most beloved tunes on here. I think they’re both fantastic, but they took me a LONG time to sort out – they’re the two least accessible tracks on an album full of ’em. But “The Duck and Roger The Horse” is probably the most insane song in the Cardiacs catalog (which is saying a LOT), and once I figured out what the fuck was going on, and it started to sound like a pop song to me (which always happens with these guys), I realized how incredible and twisted that tune really is. Finally, there’s the lengthy “Buds and Spawn,” which is so crammed packed with changes and words and Smith-isms, and never stops moving into new places, I just couldn’t make sense of it. But after many many listens, I got it. Now the big chant section sounds majestic, the melodies exciting and goofy and fun…it just works for me as a song now. What can I say – this is just a band that takes work to understand. And so while this album is one of the best of the 80s, most people will never come to appreciate it. But if you like your rock music challenging and totally original, and also catchy and fun…GET INTO THIS CLASSIC.

___________________________________________________________________________

ARCHIVES CARDIACS  (1989)

(no grade)

This is just a compilation of early tracks. There are some previously unreleased demos Tim did with Dominic Luckman. The demos are all instrumentals, and they’re probably the most noodly and proggy things I’ve ever heard from this band!  I can’t say I enjoyed them too much, but they’re interesting to hear once or twice as curios for a dedicated fan.

___________________________________________________________________________
SONGS FOR SHIPS AND IRONS  (1991)

A-

This is a compilation of various singles and 12 inch releases from the band, dating back to before the “Little House” record. And though it’s clearly a comp, and a bit patchy, it also contains some of the all-time greatest Cardiacs tracks – it’s therefore become known as a totally essential full-length release in the catalog.That canned production sound that marred “Little House” is still in play here – and William Drake goes a little overboard with some of his goofy keyboard sounds – but again, it’s about the compositions, friends, the amazing compositions! The first track is the slamming classic “Big Ship,” which sports a gigantic arrangement and epic melody (you’ll just have to get over that obnoxious synth/sax sound Drake uses in the verses – it sounds like the awful trumpet patch on a consumer Casio cheapo keyboard. And it’s on far too many early Cardiacs songs! I think it’s Sarah’s overly compressed sax coupled with a Drake keyboard sound that’s making that canned effect…I’m not entirely sure – either way, it’s one of the only Cardiacs sonic choices that continue to rub me the wrong way). “Tarred and Feathered” follows, and that’s one of the most delirious and absurd creations in the canon – along with it’s wacky video, that tune alone can make or break a fan of this band. I think it’s crammed with nutty hooks and awesome ideas – again, garish production – but get over it folks! Other favorites include the sing-along pirate-chant-like “All Spectacular,” and the simple (for this band) and tension-filled “Stoneage Dinosaurs,” an even better “normal” Cardiacs song than “Is This The Life?” We also get  the catchy quirky Sparksy pop song ‘There Too Many Irons In The Fire” and the Sea Nymphs-esque and beautiful “Blind in Safety And Leafy In Love.” “Loosefish Scapegrace” is a fantastic long-form Smith composition, full of awesome melodic ideas – one of their more overtly proggy offerings. The rest of the album isn’t quite as memorable – the instrumental that closes the proceedings is too sax heavy and simplistic, and it comes across as dated to me here 2011. “Everything Is Easy” makes heavy use of that annoying Drake-Sarah keyboard/sax sound, and it’s probably one of the least appealing Cardiacs songs overall. But in general I’m a big fan of this record – and it’s quite possibly a perfect introduction to the band’s early sound. It’s got a lot of variety and accessibility.

___________________________________________________________________________

DAY IS GONE EP   (1991)

B+

This is an AWESOME little EP from the new stripped down Cardiacs line-up. Sarah Smith and William Drake, two gigantic parts of the early sound, left the band after “On Land And In The Sea” so Tim was left to re-design the sound slightly. He ended up a more overtly psych-guitar-rock sound, and began exploring vocal effects, weird production, and harmonies a lot more. Luckily the song-writing remained completely brilliant and idiosyncratic. But in retrospect there’s no denying that this EP and the follow-up full-length were transitional releases, pointing the way toward this new Cardiacs’ ultimate masterpiece, but not quite solidifying that sound quite yet. The EP opens with the only song that also appears on the full-length – the title track and single. It’s a fantastic retro-psych-pop song with a great build. The way the vocal harmonies hit on the release of the melodic climb for the “AWAY — AY  — AY” section is pop genius. The next song is the weakest on here, but no slouch either – “No Bright Side” – with a very 90s Brit-poppy verse melody and some typically nutty Smith-ian middle sections. The song grew on me quite a bit, but it’s not one of my favorite Cardiacs tracks. The latter two tracks simple RULE! I can’t believe they aren’t on the album proper – they are probably in the top 3 or 4 tracks of both the EP and the album. “Ideal” is one of the most exciting weirdo-pop songs in the catalog – with lots a neat vocal melodic twists and a Gentle-Giant-y polyrhythmic riff that gets recapitulated in a series of unpredictable ways. Then there’s the rousing “Joining The Plankton,” one of those big anthemic numbers Smith does so well – it’s a total sing-along but also full of weird twists and odd phrasing…no other band really pulls off that vibe the way these guys do (and I’m pretty sure most other band’s don’t even try). This EP should be considered an essential part of the discography, and makes a great companion the upcoming album.

___________________________________________________________________________
HEAVEN BORN AND EVER BRIGHT  (1991)

A-

Easily the “odd-duck” of the major Cardiacs records, the most controversial, and probably the hardest to get into at first. Some fans actually think this is an outright failure. Tim Smith has been quoted calling it his favorite record! The album’s fumbled release is part of the it’s weird reputation – it was the first full-length by the new stripped down line-up (already grounds for fear in the hearts of fans), and it was set for release on Rough Trade. But the label tanked and the album sat in the vaults for years until Smith’s label eventually released it with a different master. When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The sound is definitely way different from “On The Land..” (though if you’ve heard “Sing To God” first it won’t be a huge surprise). The production is odd and harsh and obviously put together in the late 80s/early 90s. The songs are often really violent and complex, with a lot less breathing room than even before. But like all this band’s work, the compositions started to reveal themselves, and now I have very few bad things to say about any of these tunes. Is this my favorite Cardiacs record? No. But it’s cram-packed with amazing tracks and ideas. The opening track is a Cardiacs staple – the majestic anthem “Home of Fadeless Splendour.” Done entirely as a large-group-chant, it sort of sounds like a German political rally song, albeit one with Smith’s patented melodic style. It’s a genius tune. Next is the crazy and head-dizzying “She’s Hiding Behind The Shed,” one of my favorites. There seems to be a more trashy sound to some of these songs – the energy and thrust taking precedence over melody and intricacy (that’s particularly true on “Shed” as well as the pedal-to-the-metal “Anything I Can’t Eat”). “Goodbye Grace” is another trashy poppy standout. There’s another side to the record as well – a psychedelic 60s pop vibe represented by “Day Is Gone,” the absolutely beautiful ballad “Helen And Heaven,” and the incredible indescribable haunting closer “Snakes-A-Sleeping.” That last track has the best psych-out ending I’ve ever heard on a record – just hilarious and terrifying!!! I’ve come to appreciate every track here, though it definitely took some repeat listens and a push through the unappealing production  (“Core” has a fantastic vocal melody, “For Good And All” and “Bodysbad” are both insane and magical Smith-ian wonders). Not the best place the start, but a wonderful one to end up at!

___________________________________________________________________________
THE SEA NYMPHS  (THE SEA NYMPHS – SIDE PROJECT)   (1992)

B

This is part two of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Mr. Drake.” Now way better recorded, it’s the same concoction of haunting keyboard miniatures and oddball pop-folk songs. It’s a bit British Folk, a bit R.I.O., a bit classic pop, and overall mostly very lovely and strange. Once again, we get minimal percussion and a lot of sea-chanty vocals. This record seems very bottom heavy to me – the first half only has one genuinely awesome track – “A Thousand Storkes…” The rest are nice and atmospheric, but they don’t quite gel with me the way the latter portion of this record does. “Up In Annie’s Room” in particular seems ill-defined and too meandering. But the album picks up, and there are some total classics on the second half, where a more pronounced 60s psych-pop vibe kicks in. “In The Corner of Sin” is a gorgeous Tim composition infused with his own brand of magical melodic changes. “The Psalm Of Life” is a Drake sung tune that sounds like a warped British pub drinking song. “Dog Eat Spine” has absolutely absurd and grotesque lyrics, coupled to maybe the happiest and goofiest instrumentation on the record – it presents an almost Python-esque Dada-ism that works perfectly in the hands of these gentle-folk. The two best overall tracks may be the back-to-back “Lilly White’s Party” and “Appealing To Venus.” “Lilly White” is an extended and peaceful meditative track with a brilliant melody – Tim sings in that fragile tone that makes him sound like a little boy looking for a lost Mother. “Appealing To Venus” is a total 60s pop thing – with a Beach Boys-y melody line and a late-period XTC feel. This is a very interesting record, full of interesting ideas and creative melodies. It’s not up to par with the surrounding releases by this collective, but I don’t really think it’s trying to be – subtle, small, and charming ’tis surrounded by a sea of head-thrashing epic craziness.

___________________________________________________________________________
ALL THAT GLITTERS IS A MARESNEST  (1995)

(no grade)

A big epic live album. Really fun to hear if you love all the album cuts, but I imagine this would be absurdly exhausting for a non-fan. There’s some hilarious and bizarre stage banter (like Tim Smith screaming at the audience to SHUT UP before “It’s A Lovely Day”). The arrangements don’t ever stray very far from the recorded versions, though there are some faster tempos. As far as improvements, “Everything is Easy” seemed more natural in this setting. “Big Ship” and “All Spectacular” are both awesome here. You get a super polished sounding version of “Visiting Hours” (from the early cassettes). There’s a long jam tacked onto the end of their “To Go Off And Things” arrangement. This must have been an amazing show to see – these guys are so tight and exciting. I’m just not big enough on live albums unless they’re full of new material or contain lots of surprises. This is just well-played and energetic versions of mostly already recorded arrangements.

___________________________________________________________________________
TIM SMITH’S EXTRA SPECIAL OCEANLANDWORLD  (TIM SMITH SOLO)  (1995)

B+

This was Tim Smith’s only “solo” album – he plays all the instruments (save for a Sarah Smith sax line on one track) and wrote it quickly. I was expecting a way more tossed off and fun little record than I got – which is basically just another entire awesome epic Cardiacs record! This was recorded during the early days after Mrs. Smith and Mr. Drake had left the classic line-up, and it definitely points the way to the writing style on the later Cardiacs album. There are some extended tracks that opt for slow-psychedelic arrangement building atop simpler grooves, as opposed to rapid-changing prog pyrotechnics throughout. This may have alienated some older fans, but it actually makes for a much more welcoming and “acceptable” Cardiacs sound. Anyway, there’s still a lot of the old flair, the writing is mostly incredible, and the quality isn’t really much more than an expected (for a side-project) notch below the standard Smith has set with his band proper. The opening half of the album is pretty much your typical fun crazy Cardiacs fare (if that’s even POSSIBLE) – “Exploded” rides an awesome Brit-poppy melody on top of a Krautrock-y groove.”Rat Mice Lice Time” is a great jubilant peppy punky Smith pop song with some insane sections. “This Ground’s Town” isn’t one of my favorites – it opens nicely, with a very Blur-sounding verse, but it gets a little lost with some over-mashing of melodies and not enough dynamics. It’s one of my least favorite Smith songs, though it’s still got a lot of energy and ideas. The other “normal” song is “England,” the one with the Sarah sax – it sounds like a B-side from the classic line-up and it’s a bit forgettable. The heart of the album, for me, lies in the later tracks, which really move Smith into some new territories. “Savour” is a short and simple and moving little pop hymn. “Bug From Heaven” is a gorgeous ethereal pop song that points the way to “Eden On The Air” on the next Cardiacs album. “Veronica in Ecstacy” is a gloriously weird and catchy (and great) 60-ish eccentric pop tune. And then there are the three epics – all just FANTASTIC compositions. “Swimming With The Snake” is an atmospheric, very odd and at-times almost electronica track. Excellent moody melodies, and very unique production for Smith. The two “Ocean” songs are also winners – the first “Ocean Shipwreck” takes this this thumping swirling heavy groove to epic heights, without ever really shifting tempos or rhythms (making it VERY unique for Smith!). And then there’s the poppy chugging closer, “Ocean Heaven,” which has some of my all-time favorite Smith melodic ideas and a great home-made arrangement (a lot of the sounds are obviously programmed, but it works pretty damn well considering!). That song showcases one of Tim’s favorite production tricks: timed delays. This isn’t the place to start, and it takes a little while to grow on you, but it’s just another excellent release in the catalog and essential for a fan.

___________________________________________________________________________
SING TO GOD (PARTS 1 AND 2)   (1995)

A+

An overwhelming and mind-blowing album – almost certainly the greatest thing Tim Smith ever created with this band. A double album, it nearly maintains genius-level quality throughout, and though there are some “lesser” tracks, there are no bad or uninteresting ones. There’s also incredible variety, pure madness, pure pop, the most creative production to grace a Cardiacs record yet, and enough epic magic for ten records. Smith bookends this classic with two moments of pure beauty (“Eden On The Air” and “Foundling”) both of which push the band’s sound in hitherto unexplored directions (the melody of the first track is just gorgeous). In between, we get brilliantly constructed eccentric pop tracks that are both instantly catchy and a bit nuts (“Dog Like Sparky,” “Odd Even,”  “Flap Off You Beak,” “Manhoo,” Insect Hoofs On Lassie”). All of those songs are amazing. There are fuming ragers like the incredible “Fiery Gun Hand” and experimental psychedelic songs like the jaw-droppingly awesome “Fairy Mary Mag” and the dense, intense re-vamp of “Nurses Whispering Verses.” There’s the hypnotic Faust-like “Wireless,” complete with scissor percussion. Jon Poole contributes some original tracks, Cardiacs-ified by Tim (these aren’t quite as striking as the best songs on here, but they’re all exciting and thrashy and add to the epic experience). Then there’s the fan favorite, “Dirty Boy,” which is so crammed with relentless noise and passion and melodic twists, it’s hard to believe it actually WORKS as a song.The last sung note of that one lasts two minutes! (an awesome and cathartic special effect).  The only downside to the record is that the weakest track (and probably the album’s most disjointed overall) comes right towards the beginning: “Eat It Up Worms Hero.” I can imagine that being a turn-off to a first time listener, and it’s somewhat tuneless second half is not really representative of the record.  Anyway, this is an album that MUST become better known.  It’s should be a beginner’s first Cardiacs record without a doubt. It’s just a classic.

___________________________________________________________________________
HAZEL EP  (SPRATLEYS JAPS – SIDE PROJECT)    (1998)

(no grade)

A brief EP in preparation for the “Pony” full-length. “Hazel” is a pretty but unmemorable song based around big string-synth swells and a bizarre vocal sound. It’s a cool track, but it never really goes anywhere. “Curfew” is possibly my favorite track on both the EP and the full-length – it’s short and punchy and has a great Tim vocal hook. “Home” is a little spoken word joke, and “Secrets” is Cardiacs-by-numbers.

___________________________________________________________________________
PONY  (SPRATLEYS JAPS  – SIDE PROJECT)   (1998)

B-

This was the band Tim started with his lady-friend Jo Spratley. They apparently based the sound around a broken Mellotron, but this ultimately just sounds like Cardiacs. It also sounds like a bunch of GUNS discards – there really isn’t much on here that hits me as hard as even the lesser Cardiacs tracks. It’s consistently odd and never quite boring, but there’s definitely something missing here. The most overtly poppy song comes early with “Fanny” – it has an excellent hook, but it goes on way too long and grows sonically tiresome with it’s dense hi-endy production. “Vine” is another standout – it’s a short song that begins with a nice poppy Smith-y melody and ends with a total Krautrock homage instrumental. The rest of the album leaves me a bit cold – “Sparrows” and “Pond” and “Don’t You Ail…” are all decent – but they really just sound like Cardiacs leftovers to me. The worst parts of the record are the two epic-length tracks, “Oh” and “Cabinet.” The former breaks from a quiet acoustic first half into a guitar driven bombastic instrumental second one. But it’s never very interesting, and it doesn’t grab me like the great Cardiacs epics. Then there’s probably my all-time least favorite Tim track: “Cabinet.” It’s 10 minutes of repetitive ambient crap, with filter-sweeping synths and a psychedelic atmosphere…but there’s nary an interesting moment in the whole mushy thing. I wouldn’t really recommend this unless you’re already a big fan, even if it does have it’s share of exciting moments.

___________________________________________________________________________
GUNS   (1999)

A

The last Cardiacs album to date is a refinement of the “Sing To God” aesthetic – a bit less thrashy, a bit more overtly psychedelic, and once again totally amazing. This is without a doubt the best SOUNDING Cardiacs record – it’s full and lush and often quite warm, a major contrast to the canned sounds of the 80s records. Tim’s song-writing and production have reached a point of total brilliance at this point. I have no idea why some fans consider this the weak point of the catalog, as it’s arguably the classiest and most accessible (in a good way) Cardiacs record of them all. It may be a bit simpler on the surface, but it’s still crammed with insane ideas and experimentation and the kinds of songs no one but Tim could write. This is probably the most relaxed sounding of their albums – it just flows perfectly with nary a wrong note. Just like on “God,” there are a handful of classic eccentric pop tracks, some crazy ravers, and some bizarre indefinable tracks. This album basically takes the sound of “Fairy Mary Mag” and runs with it for nearly an entire record. Opener “Spell With A Shell” is just mesmerizing – it’s hard to wrap my head around the way it so effortlessly builds from it’s Krautrock-y verse into it’s giant harmonized chorus and then RIGHT back again…just fantastic work. “There’s Good Cud” is a proggy thrash-rockabilly gem. “Signs” is a Pixies-like soft-loud tune with a godly chorus. “Clean That Evil Mud Out Your Soul” is Zappa-esque pop. “Come Back Clammy Lammy” is a thumping garage-y masterpiece. “Cry Wet Smile Dry” has another heavenly chorus. Goddamn, basically everything on here is great. “Jitterbug (Junior Is A)” moves from a beautiful and complex rocking melodic section into a bizarre chant-like experimental extended coda. There are a lot of female vocals on this record (the bouncy weirdo pop number “Wind And Rains Is Cold” and “Clean That Evil Mud” feature ’em heavily in their choruses). That adds a great new dimension to the sound. I hope these guys eventually release their follow-up to this album – but even if they don’t, they ended with one of their greatest records.

___________________________________________________________________________
WILLIAM D. DRAKE  (WILLIAM DRAKE SOLO)   (2003)

B+

Classic-era Cardiacs keyboardist and sometimes songwriter Bill Drake’s first solo album was produced by Tim. So it’s pretty close to a Cardiacs album as far as personnel. But it sounds a lot like a poppier version of the Bill material on “Sea Nymphs” and the “Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Mr. Drake” record. This record is thoroughly charming and gorgeous, with lots of pleasant classic-piano-pop melodies filtered through a bit (but not too much) of Cardiacs weirdness. But it’s generally one of the more accessible and instant releases by any Cardiacs family member – very low key and very piano based. Don’t expect any crazy ravers here. There are a lot of mini-songs, and also a great deal of eccentric British-ness. Bill’s voice is a lot less versatile than Tim’s, but it’s also sweeter and less prone to attacks of anxiety and mania. Highlights include the brilliant closer “Freedom and Love,” the exquisite “Ivy Dun,” and the haunting “Fiery Pyre,” but really they’re all quality tracks and the album should be listened to as a whole.

___________________________________________________________________________
SPECIAL GARAGE CONCERTS   (2005)

(no grade)

In 2005, the band performed 3 special concerts during which they only played pre-Little House material. For fans who hadn’t heard the early tapes, this was a treasure trove of old “new” material. And there are even some totally unrecorded early songs (such as “Gloomy News,” “The Ant,” and “Hopeless”)! I’m sure these were great shows – the band is tight as hell, the energy is through the roof as always, and the crowd sounds like they’re eating it up. But just like on the previous epic live record – the arrangements are too similar to the albums to make much of an impression on me. And over two hours of early Cardiacs is total overkill, no matter how well played. This material just isn’t quite classic (save for some of The Seaside material), and it’s certainly not as nuanced as the later stuff. This is a fun release for major fans – and a good document – but that’s about all I can say for it.

___________________________________________________________________________
DITZY SCENE EP/SINGLE    (2007)

B+

A one-off single, with two “b-sides” attached – this was the last official Cardiacs release before Tim’s heart attack. I believe “Ditzy Scene” was intended for the promised upcoming full-length. It sounds more like “Sing To God” than “Guns” – it’s got a cool vocal hook, and a big epic sound, but it’s not exactly a fresh sounding track for the band. It’s particularly frustrating in it’s first 2 minutes – before the song proper kicks in, there’s a whole lot of dull noodling. Luckily, the other two tracks are nearly up to the old standard. “Gen” is easily the highlight – it’s got a great poppy vocal hook, and an even better proggy guitar-solo section that sounds a bit like Zeppelin at their craziest. Then there’s the closer “Made All Up” – it’s another standard-issue Cardiacs song (with the big crowd vocals and the weird meter shifts), but it’s a damn good one with some super exciting hooks. If the new full-length (currently titled “LSD”) ever does get released, I hope it goes a lot farther than these three tracks. But these are still three more fun tunes to add to the collection.

___________________________________________________________________________
BRINY HOOVES  (WILLIAM DRAKE SOLO)   (2007)

C+

Drake released this album at the same time as another instrumental piano album called “Yew’s Paw.” I haven’t heard the instrumental one, but this is a generally disappointing pop follow-up to his excellent self-titled. Tim Smith wasn’t involved on this one, and it’s immediately apparent from the sub-par opener “Wolves” – Drake sings in a strained tone totally unsuitable to his voice and writing, and the arrangement is rather pedestrian and corny (for my tastes!). The melody is decent.  There aren’t too many moments on this record that actually grate on my ears. It’s mostly clever and professional – but there are a lot of boring passages, and Drake’s voice just doesn’t fulfill the needs of some of these compositions. This abandons the miniature oddball pop of the debut and goes for more classicist songwriting, and it’s generally successful but usually quite unmemorable.The first half of the album is BY FAR the best – we get the multi-part and hooky “Dark Ecstasies,” and the pretty “Ugly Fortress.” “Serendipity Doodah” is a good pop song with some very classic sounding hooks, but the vocals are way too weak to do it justice. My absolute favorite, though, is “The Seashell Song” – it has the classiest arrangement, and Drake sings in a more laid back style that suits him way better. The latter half of this record is totally weak – and the nadir is the 6 minute “Seashell,” which basically sounds like a crappy Pro-Tools era “Nights In White Satin.” I hate to too harshly criticize a Cardiacs disciple, but this album just isn’t up to par.

___________________________________________________________________________
LEADER OF THE STARRY SKIES/A LOYAL COMPANION  (TRIBUTE ALBUM)   (2010)

(no grade)

In the late 2000s, Tim fell victim to a heart attack or stroke (I’m not really sure what happened). He’s been in the hospital ever since, and as a result Cardiacs have gone on indefinite hold. To help him raise money for his medical bills, a group of peers and fans put together this tribute album. The love for Tim’s music comes through very clearly when listening to this record, and you can’t fault the intentions. The covers are usually pretty faithful, but unfortunately they’re mostly pretty bad. There are a couple exciting re-creations (a warped electronic version of “Will Bleed Amen” by Max Tundra – a stripped down slow-build version of “Home of Fadeless Splendour” by The Scaramanga Six). There are way too many Sea Nymphs songs for my liking, and not nearly enough “ENERGY!” It seems like many of these artists went for the gentle and melancholy side of Tim’s art, which I guess makes sense considering the sad story behind the record. I would have imagined more oddball arrangements from a bunch of professed Cardiacs fans – a lot of this just sounds like alt-guitar-rock covers. The worst offenders come on the “Loyal Companion” disc – to my ears, you’d have to TRY to put together a worse cover of “Dirty Boy” (by STERBUS), and re-fashioning “Victory Egg” as a generic guitar rocker ruins the song entirely (in a version by SIDI BOU SAID). This is a fun curiosity for fans, but it’s also something of a missed opportunity.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: