On Cardinal

13Nov07

Each day at our midtown gym we brave the sonic assault of soulless dance music and sadly dated AOR rock that reminds us of the FM radio we grew up listening to in Pittsburgh. But as soon as we get changed and put on our headphones, we turn our attention to Cardinal, the eponymous 1994 release on Flydaddy that will accompany us on our afternoon run.

“Listen to the sound,” Richard Davies announces only seconds into the record — his tone both impish and intimate — and sure enough, the first chords have a quiet ethereal quality that delivers us to a universe populated not by preening men aggressively fixated on the large-screen football highlights but by carefully orchestrated pop music.

There are influences: musically, Cardinal could not have existed without the Bee Gees circa 1965-70 (prior to the maddening descent into disco) and Love is another obvious point of reference, but Cardinal — a Generation X offering, after all — is more ambiguous than their 1960s counterparts, less willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Vocally this is even more true; in stark opposition to the screaming rants of Curt Cobain and his grunge cohorts, Cardinal is closer in spirit of the whispered understatement of Donovan’s best work, but again more guarded and pessimistic.

We are struck that this is perhaps the reason why — of all the thousands of orchestrated pop records that were released from say, 1994-1999 — Cardinal is the only one to which we ever return with any regularity. Though beautifully — at times even lushly — arranged with strings and brass, it is never romantic, and ultimately distinguishes itself (from the more derivative works of their contemporaries) as an introspective album, filled with bleak and sometimes surreal imagery (e.g., “Silver Machines”).

At this moment, as we literally find ourselves on the treadmill of middle age, the songs recall quiet hours spent as a child alone in our room, leafing through guidebooks of North American birds and cutting out thousands and thousands of paper snowflakes, each one of which we strung to our ceiling in the attempt to push the looming world of reality that much further away.

Listen to the sound
That makes the world go round
My feet won’t touch the ground
In a world that let me down
My ship was sinking down

I wish I could cast a spell on you to see how it feels inside
You pick me up and put me down

I don’t know what I’ve done
To frighten everyone
I might as well be on Mars
No ordinary sun can reach the place where I come from

“If You Believe in Christmas Trees” Richard Davies/Cardinal

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