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Cardinal - Cardinal

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Artist: Cardinal

Album: Cardinal

Label: Empyrean

Review date: Jun. 19, 2005

“The fans who are a little mystified are our equals, because we don’t quite know how we did it either.” - Richard Davies

Happenstance is the cornerstone of most great music, the variable that unsettles those taking part and shakes them out of their skins. In 1994 Richard Davies released two albums – the final Moles record, Instinct, and the only Cardinal record, made in collaboration with American arranger and musician Eric Matthews. If Instinct folded mystique into arcane and unruly song forms, with Cardinal Davies slid mystery past the listener by cloaking it in layers of deftly orchestrated pop music, sourcing inspiration in the skewed arrangements of Love and the architectures of emotion in the early music of the Bee Gees.

How does one describe the sheer strangeness of Cardinal, the liminal shiver of this music? “If You Believe in Christmas Trees” opens the record with bolshy balustrades of brass, a perfect pop song that’s derailed by the snaking lines of “Last Poems,” where Matthews and Davies’ voices sing in breathy, weightless octaves. If Cardinal’s most memorable pop moments are its singles – “Christmas Trees,” “Big Mink,” and Matthews’ sole writing credit “Dream Figure” – it’s the quiet, baroque constructions that are most beguiling. “You’ve Lost Me There” slips between registers and structures, modular in design, with a reedy organ whistling between the keys of the piano. “Angel Darling” hovers between melancholy poise and a triumphant bridge laden with regal horns, before it swims off on a guitar and xylophone arrangement that’s like ’60s psych-pop stripped off its every frill, leaving gaping holes in the fabric of the sound.

It is essential to acknowledge the importance of Eric Matthews here: Davies’ songs had never sounded as rich as they did on “You’ve Lost Me There” and “Silver Machines,” thanks in great part to Matthews’ lush, elliptical arrangements. That his post-Cardinal solo records would be so unrelentingly gorgeous is no surprise. On “Silver Machines,” the duo interweaves a strange narrative that may include Axl Rose, Kennedy, cracker night and black and white television, a thoroughgoing modern surrealism echoed in a song structure that repeatedly shifts gears. If anything, the over-riding thematic of Cardinal is of moments that slip outside the framework of the everyday: Christmas trees and sleighs, cracker night, the Christmas card in “You’ve Lost Me There.” It’s reflective of a carnivalesque space of temporary liberation from quotidian order, crossed with esoteric magic (the bent spoons and stopped clocks of “You’ve Lost Me There”) and a worldview that’s positively old-fashioned.

Empyrean has loaded eleven extra songs onto the back of this reissue. They have made most of the Toy Bell EP available again, until now the only previously released documentation of the Davies/Fay/Matthews line-up. (Though it would have been nice to have all of Toy Bell available – if you are a Cardinal purist, you need to hear the original “Big Mink,” and the full band arrangement of “Public Melody #1,” titled “It turns on in a Circle on a Pedestal.”) Even more fascinating are a batch of four-track demos and rough performances, including versions of “You’ve Lost Me There” and “Say the Words Impossible” with notably different lyrics and delivery, a wild, seat-of-the-pants recording of “Tough Guy Tactics,” and an odd etude for Crow lead singer Pete Fenton. The highlight is an astonishing cover of Love’s “Willow Willow” which manages to capture the strange air of the original Love recordings. “Say the Words Impossible” turns up in original form: once relegated to the b-side of “Christmas Trees,” it now acts as a perfect denouement. Davies’ voice broadcasts over thick blocks of static and hiss, sounding for all the world as if he’s lost inside a reel-to-reel, singing to himself as the tape oxidizes, his song unravelling as brown dust flakes from the spools. (Though this ending does damage to the original circular structure of Cardinal’s oeuvre: the first four bars of “Big Mink,” the first song on their first release, Toy Bell, are completely identical to the last four bars of “Silver Machines,” the final song on their final record.)

What of Cardinal’s legacy? When first released, many people thought Cardinal was some retro-pop gesture, or the birth of the orch-pop genre. There is an integral difference: whereas orch-pop sets its co-ordinates for the past and settles there, Cardinal simply imagined the music they wanted to hear in their here and now. Cardinal sounds like a record that could only have been made with the benefit of hindsight, but it’s not enamored of the past. More importantly, songs like “Last Poems” and “Silver Machines” sound like futures untapped: another direction for the pop song.

Everything I read about Cardinal or Richard Davies at the time came from overseas – the excited and confused notices that appeared in the English music press; the strange commentary from the American music magazines, or the odd glimmer of true appreciation in fanzines like Ptolemaic Terrascope. This reflected what we here in Australia thought Richard Davies was up to – trying to find his own voice by throwing himself into different situations in different settings. But I never really read much about how all of us back in Australia took to Cardinal’s music, how proud some of us were that one of our own was making music as elegant, eloquent and singular as this.

Perhaps we were blindsided by Davies’ history. The Moles’ garage pop aesthetic was all about finding solace from aesthetic displacement – there were few Australian groups who sounded less traditionally Australian. As such, they were a beacon for disaffected listeners who felt that Australian music relied too much on its rock and swamp past. When Davies escaped Australia, his songs navigated a route back to the old land by documenting the complex negotiations that go on when settling in a new country, discovering how the hangover from your homeland informs your way of being in a new town. Cardinal is the beginning of that second route: as Davies states in the liner notes, the songs “are about Australia in one way or another… filtered through my travelling experiences, and meeting people in different northern cities, piling on nostalgia.”

By Jon Dale

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