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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
Empyrean Records

Rating: 8.5/10 ?

August 22, 2005
Since its 1994 release, Cardinal has taken on a mythic quality among pop music geeks - you know, the same folks who drool over Emitt Rhodes and The Go-Betweens and who insist that a song isn't a song if it doesn't sound just as good when it's just a voice and acoustic guitar. The Sarah Records set will tell you that it's one of the best albums of its decade, well worth the eBay price standards it was fetching prior to this reissue.

For melodic rock fetishists and others who have narrowed down their musical interests to guitar pop, Cardinal's place in the canon is indisputable; for the rest of us - the ones with limited record-buying budgets and varied tastes - it requires closer examination. Additionally, with eleven years under its belt, it's also time for the most ardent of Cardinal fans to reevaluate this document, both to measure its impact on the pop music community and to check it for unsightly wrinkles, liver spots and other blemishes that surface with age.

Cardinal's self-titled LP is the group's only full-length. They also released a handful of singles, which this remastered rerelease collates and seasons with four-track demos. Upon its release, critics greeted Cardinal warmly, touting it as a defining work for both its genre and its creators: Moles songwriter Richard Davies and aspiring composer Eric Matthews. While a select audience still sees it as a Holy Grail of sorts, the album has largely been eclipsed by a segment of its contemporaries that have exerted greater influence over current pop and rock trends, and have proven more definitive of their birth period. Even Matthews and Davies fruitful post-Cardinal solo careers have gone underappreciated, as the listening public's tastes have turned away from their baroque, literate aesthetics toward blatant earnestness and feyness.

That's not to say that Cardinal exactly epitomize a past zeitgeist, either. Though their heritage traces through a series of obvious touchpoints from The Beatles to The Field Mice, this album harbors no ancillary traits to tie it directly to another group of artists, any sort of scene or movement; it bears similarity to a handful of artists from each generation, and works in a vaguely defined tradition rather than participating in a carefully constructed genre. The same qualities that have caused Cardinal to become a lost classic are the same ones that make it such a singular work.

The group appears both timeless and distinct because of Matthews and Davies' differing sensibilities. The archetypal craftsman, Matthews had been prepared to compose music for any market before meeting Davies - according to his liner notes, he had resigned himself to film scores and yuppie moodscapes, as those were the most marketable outlets for his skills as arranger and composer. At the time, Matthews was not as interested in communicating as he was in sculpting; what his music said was not as important to him as building grandiose pieces that were as logical as they were creative. Davies, on the other hand, was pure soul. In the booklet, he notes, "the reason for Cardinal making its own interesting music was more than a style chosen, more than strings and horns," suggesting that the band's success hinged on the intangible and the spontaneous. Though an accomplished popsmith, Davies did not share Matthews' attention to mechanics; he was more interested in developing a personality and allowing for the unexpected. Whereas Matthews cemented Cardinal's place in years of convention, Davies assured that the project would not just consist of regurgitation. This polarization may be an oversimplification - the two men's voices do overlap on many occasions, best embodied when they sing together and literally do bleed into one - but this quality does much to explain how Cardinal's striking uniqueness hasn't blunted its effect after time.

Precisely describing the album's effect is an altogether different proposition. Matthews's lush strings and horns and Davies's love of the big finish (see "If You Believe in Christmas Trees" and "You've Lost Me There") would be obvious places to start looking to see what makes Cardinal so remarkable, but there's just as much power in the little things - like the tempo changes in "Big Mink" and the anomalous sweaty rock gusto of the brief ending of "Tough Guy Tactic". Davies himself acknowledges that Cardinal's greatness has an air of mystery about it, and that may be just short of the final word on the album.

All eleven bonus tracks also suggest that there's no way to explain what makes the album such a special creature. The three four-track demos present skeletal versions of album tracks, and I honestly can't say what makes the final cuts better - sure, the embellished production and added instrumentation help, but the two versions' very hearts seem to be different. Meanwhile, B-sides "Poolside '75," "Sweatshirt Gown," and "Say the Words Impossible" are all well-written songs, but they pale in comparison to the album material, and once again, the difference is as intangible as it is ineffable. The four-track cover of Love's "Willow Willow" provides roundabout insight into Cardinal's magic in showing the similarities between the two bands. Suddenly, it makes sense: Davies and Matthews are as inimitable as Arthur Lee, albeit with less resonant lyrical voices.

In the 850-plus words I've written so far, I've come no closer to explaining Cardinal's only album than I would have if I had simply said, "It's good." Listening to the album is a similar experience: you become increasingly familiar with the songs, but they grow no less dazzling over time. Perhaps it's just best to accept that fact and enjoy.

Reviewed by Phillip Buchan
A one-time music director at WUOG in Athens, Phillip is into college radio, literature, writing, buying records, going to shows, talking to friends, learning -- pretty much the same stuff that all of us priveledged, (pseudo?)intellectual Americans are into.

See other reviews by Phillip Buchan



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