CARDINAL

Was there chamber pop after the Beatles and Bee Gees and before Belle & Sebastian? The missing link is Cardinal’s self-titled debut. The album’s release in 1994, which seemed to come out of nowhere, with its layered textures and delightful melodies, swimming against the tidalwave of grunge. It ushered in an era of renewed appreciation for the orchestrated pop music of the 1960s, and at the same time inspired and influenced a host of modern artists, who followed in Cardinal’s footsteps, endeavoring to duplicate its majesty and sound so classic.

Founded by Richard Davies, Australian by birth, Welsh by parentage, and American by choice, along with Oregonian Eric Matthews, Cardinal was formed when the unlikely duo met in Boston, Massachusetts. Davies most notably had been in the band the Moles, which led him from his native Sydney, to London, and then to New England, while Matthews was born in Southern California, studying music at a conservatory in San Francisco before moving to the north East.

What was erstwhile professional student Davies up to? Finding his own voice by throwing himself into different situations and different places. Matthews had spent his childhood immersed in music, learning trumpet and classical composition. He converted to independent music because he “heard Richard’s ideas and saw something special in them that I wanted to be part of”.

But, Cardinal was, and continues to be a band with several identities. Whereas orch-pop set its co-ordinates for the past, and settled there, Cardinal simply imagined the music they wanted to listen to in the here and now. More importantly, songs like Last Poems and Silver Machines from Cardinal’s debut sounded like futures untapped. The album met with deafening acclaim from the press, while at the same time the list of artists, both from that era and continuing to this day, who cite its brilliance, and laud Davies & Matthews as a major touchstone in their musical education, is both long and diverse – a list that includes The Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree, Autolux, Vetiver, and many, many more. But as influential and significant as Cardinal seemed, their musical output totaled that lone, brilliant self-titled record, as Matthews moved home to the West Coast while Davies remained out East.

The two moved on to their respective solo careers. Richard Davies took his distinctive and gifted songwriting talents to Flydaddy, V2 Records and beyond. He made more albums that met with praise from the media worldwide, he shared the stage with the Flaming Lips, he made a record with fellow eccentric Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices & Cosmos, he became a trial attorney, though never totally turning his back on music. Meanwhile Eric Matthews flew further in the face of grunge, becoming the enfant-terrible amongst a roster of guitar-heavy labelmates, as he signed to Sub Pop Records, releasing two highly acclaimed albums for the northwest label, and subsequently continued to create a further series of lush-orchestrated releases in the following decade, while at the same taking his talents as a multi-instrumentalist to work as a sideman on various other records.

Miraculously though, what may have seemed, for many years, to be the end of the story, has not ended up as the closing chapter for Cardinal. A reconnection between the two musicians. An on-again/off-again chronicle of creating new music. A bi-coastal recording process. And finally completed in 2011, what was thought to be a pipe dream, and an object that is sure to elicit delight from both musicians and music fans alike, a new album. 12 new songs. Hymns.

Their new album, and first in eighteen years, Hymns, combines self-assured and pious pop gems ‘Northern Soul’ with immense-canvas outback masterworks ‘Kal’, and improbably, hot-blooded essays on the first law case Davies ever read ‘Carbolic Smoke Ball’.

Like the first album a lifetime ago, Hymns is a set of diamonds. Great songs – actually, plain-old-fashioned good songs, filtered through Davies’ John Donne/Sir John Mortimer law/art prism, and Matthews’ trained arranger’s ear.

The two are perfectly matched. It is clear that, once again they spur each other on to greater heights. Guitars, vocals, horns and strings, bass, along with the weird, are used with invention, purpose, and confidence.

When Cardinal was released in 1994 they were arguably the best band in the world. In 2012 with Hymns they are well positioned for a repeat performance

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