In the grungy trenches of mid-‘90s pop, English baroque had become a thing of the past. So naturally, in the grand tradition of circular trends, a movement emerged to reinstate the lush strings and harmonies of The Beatles and Left Banke. International duo Cardinal was one of the first to do so with its 1994 self-titled debut before similar bands like Belle & Sebastian arguably eclipsed Cardinal’s notoriety. Six years after Cardinal’s reissue, vocalist Richard Davies and multi-instrumentalist Eric Matthews have released a new LP, Hymns. Now facing a musical landscape in which orchestral elements are commonplace, Cardinal’s newest album is worth revisiting but ultimately doesn’t break any memorable ground.
In the same way that Cardinal invariably borrowed elements from their Seattle brethren (i.e. “Last Poem”’s brooding chords, the self-defeat saturating “If You Believe In Christmas Trees”), Hymns incorporates contemporary touches that modernize the harpsichords and dramatic arrangements. For example, “Northern Soul” and “Carbolic Smoke Ball” reverberate with Bradford Cox-like echoes. On “Love Like Rain”, Davies softens—dare I say it?—grungy distortion along the lines of Cloud Nothings or The Quiet Americans with his lyrics, “You’re the king, you’re the queen of rock and roll/You have such a beautiful soul/In your own special version of your lonely world.”
While the album’s more avant-garde efforts don’t hold up as well— a piano that belongs on a BBC melodrama backs raspy cries of “Nurse! Nurse!” on “General Hospital”, and Matthews’ lackluster harpsichord does nothing for the instrumental “Surviving Paris”—Cardinal’s forays into more experimental ‘60s folk-rock succeed. “Kal”’s shimmering, sitar-like guitars elegantly interweave with brass and strings, and album closer “Radio Birdman” sounds almost like a perverted “Space Oddity”. It took me more than a few listens to pick up on this subtle understanding of baroque rock. Hopefully, Cardinal will expand their range enough to find a sound that stands the test of time.
Essential Tracks: “Kal”, “Radio Birdman”, and “Love Like Rain”