Friday, 22 October 2010

Cardinal (Wonderland)

Of all the things that you never expected to see reissued in a deluxe edition with bonus tracks! When the Cardinal album reappeared in 2005 I was delighted - for one, because my original love of this album was only known through a cassette dub. Now vinyl would have been nicer (and we can keep dreaming) but at least they did that fancy Japanese-style cardboard sleeve that resembles a mini-gatefold LP. I'll tolerate a CD here because this is really clean, bright music, despite the warbly and murky voice of Eric Matthews and the reedy one of Richard Davies. I'll preface this by admitting that Richard Davies is, for me, one of the most singularly visionary songwriters in all of music, and I'm pretty much a fanboy. Matthews, well, he's not so bad either and I also thought this was a great collaboration because it truly felt 50/50. The liner notes indicate a far more Davies-leaning slant to the songwriting than I realised - Matthews is really the brain behind the arrangements. But when he pulls out the pen, it's cool - 'Dream Figure' being the only song on the proper album that he wrote solo. And it's a good one, with some grungy guitar action over lumbering rhythmic momentum. So really, he's like the understudy apprenticing with the master. And there are some incredible, brilliant songs on this record. 'If You Believe in Christmas Trees' is the opener and still the most iconic Cardinal song (and a good pick for my "best leadoff tracks of all-time" list). The orch-pop tendencies are shown here with a full horn section, but it never overcomes the trio at the core -- Cardinal is far closer to the garage than to Forever Changes. This is a record with many slowly unfolding, long, catchy hooks. 'You've Lost Me There' and 'Big Mink' are both amazing. 'Angel Darling' is a more contemplative duet-type ballad that bursts with horns only to repeatedly pull back into its shell. 'Tough Guy Tactics' is a group contribution and one where drummer Bob Fay's impact is most felt, with it's Sebadoh-like chorus. The sole cover on the album is 'Singing to the Sunshine' by an obscure 60's group called Mortimer. I've never heard the original, but Davies and Matthews harmonizing over a light guitar strum and confident bassline makes some magic. Particularly as the penultimate track - and then we get 'Silver Machines', another total masterpiece. Even though I never heard this song until college, it somehow stirs memories of my earliest teenage years, of wandering through parks and museums with cheap headphones on, and of waiting for my parents to pick me up. Overall, as albums go, Cardinal is not an all-out classic, but a personal classic that obviously attracted some followers over the past 18 years. The most obviously brilliant songs are at the start and finish, leaving a middle that I continue to explore with each listen. Now onto the bonus tracks. Well, a demo version of 'Xmas Trees' is a nice start - it's such a strong tune that even without the horns etc. it's still great. And there's some lyrical variation as well. 'You've Lost Me There', in demo form, allows Matthews' breathy croon to really fill the speakers and I might even prefer it to the studio recording. 'Tribute to a Crow' is brief and buried in reverb and riffage - a psych experiment that is a bit of a diversion for Cardinal's otherwise Apollonian mission. There's two cuts from the other Cardinal release, the Toy Bell EP, which both show a younger sound, and only 'Sweatshirt Gown' begins to hint at the transcendence of the full-length, but it ends before it gets going. And finally we get two versions of the great lost Cardinal track, 'Say the Words Impossible', the B-side to the 'Xmas Trees' single. It's a slow creeper, a bit less malevolent in it's demo form. But the studio version has vocals bathed in white noise, and a very austere guitar arpeggio; Davies' cryptic imagery feels like the credits are rolling, and it was a wise choice for the last track. 1994 was an interesting time for pop music like this; it feels so outside of the commercial 'alternative' scene that was happening in the charts, but at the same time, it's some reflection of that. Growing up myself during this time, it felt like these 60's-influenced indie pop bands (Zumpano also comes to mind) were really challenging the (as I perceived it) shallowness and immaturity of stuff like Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, Hole, etc. Now I have the hindsight to realise that these artists had little to do with each other. But it helped to form my own tastes and identity, which is why the Cardinal album is lockstep with my own development.

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