Cardiacs: Sing to God

Released: 1996

 Personnel:

  • Tim Smith: guitar, vocals, keyboards
  • Jim Smith: bass, vocals
  • Jon Poole: guitars, vocals
  • Bob Leith: drums, vocals

Guests:

  • Sara Smith: saxophone, vocals
  • Claire Lemmon: vocals
  • Catherine Morgan, Chris Brierly, Mark Pharoah, Robert Woollard: strings
  • Mark Barratt: trumpet

Tracklist:

Disc 1

  1. Eden on the Air
  2. Eat it Up Worms Hero
  3. Dog-Like Sparky
  4. Fiery Gun Hand
  5. Insect Hooves on Lassie
  6. Fairy Mary Mag
  7. Bellyeye
  8. A Horse’s Tail
  9. Manhoo
  10. Wireless/Peril on the Sea

Disc 2:

  1. Dirty Boy
  2. Billion
  3. Odd Even
  4. Bell Stinks
  5. Bell Clinks
  6. Flap Off You Beak
  7. Quiet as a Mouse
  8. Angleworm Angel
  9. Red Fire Coming Out of His Gills
  10. No Gold
  11. Nurses Whispering Verses
  12. Foundling

Once upon a time, I watched a YouTube video. It featured several middle-aged, somewhat grizzled gentlemen and a younger man with wild black hair, playing various instruments and videoed from rather odd angles.  The bass player sat, substantial and impassive, wearing nothing but a small pair of underwear.

What I saw (and heard) is hard to describe – I barely understood it the first time through and had to immediately watch it about six more times.  Whatever these guys were doing, it was like nothing I had ever heard (or seen) before.  Imagine a slightly psychotic pop song, except with more rhythmic shifts and time-signature changes and sudden breaks and mad musical ideas packed into four minutes than most artists can fit on an entire album, pulled off by guys who looked like the sort of guys who get together to jam on amateur night at the local pub.  And pulled off absolutely flawlessly, tighter-than-tight, with maniacal skill.

The band was, of course, the Cardiacs, and the video was “Jibber and Twitch Rehearsal”. This review isn’t about that video, but it illustrates the basic process I went through while listening to Sing to God.  Which I believe (but honestly don’t remember) was my next real foray into the labyrinthine musical miracle that is Tim Smith and Cardiacs, after poking around on YouTube and ending up overwhelmed.

When it comes to Cardiacs, people fall into one of two camps – those who realize that what they are hearing is like nothing else and nothing that ever will be; and those who simply never get it.  There is very little in-between.  Loving Cardiacs is not a gradual process, really: it generally consists of playing (almost anything by them), listening with bemusement and disbelieving laughter, possibly with many interjections of “What the f*** are they doing???” followed by the overwhelming need to do it again.  Which is the key – if you do not feel the need to immediately play something else (or replay whatever it was you just sat through) – you will likely fall into the latter camp.  If the former, then one day, one playthrough, it will hit you like you were on the road to Damascus: instant revelation, and conversion.

Cardiacs are out of England, and have existed in one form or another since 1977, with their most famous lineup from the mid-80s that included Sara Smith on saxophone and William D. Drake on keyboards.  They never broke through with any major hits, and given their eccentric, complex, manic and unpredictable (not to mention largely unclassifiable) sound, this is no real surprise.  However, they (or more precisely Tim Smith) have been profoundly influential, cited by such acts as Blur, Faith No More, Tool, Korn, and Steven Wilson (who covered their track “Stoneage Dinosaurs”), among others.

None of their lineups was ever stable, and by the time Sing to God was recorded in 1996 it had been reduced to a foursome: Tim and his brother Jim Smith, Jon Poole, and Bob Leith (the lineup on the “Rehearsals” YouTube videos has Kavus Torabi replacing Poole on guitar).  And for many years, their recordings were very difficult to find. It was only in 2014 that Sing to God was re-released on vinyl (which as of this writing is still available on their website https://www.cardiacs.net/ ).

So what about Sing to God?  The lineup (as noted above) is relatively spare, compared to other Cardiac incarnations, but that does not mean the music is spare.  Quite the contrary: there is density and complexity and layer upon layer of sound—raucous guitar, keyboards, vocals; and as always with these guys, the unexpected: random noises, bizarre little background themes, mutterings and conversations. And of course the relentless time changes and rhythmic chaos.  The track styles range from jagged pop through meandering instrumental voyages to near-ballads of heartbreaking beauty, with plenty of abrupt shifts in direction along the way.  And throughout we are treated to Tim Smith’s special brand of stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

There is a lot of room for all this: The album is a massive 22 tracks and 90 minutes long, so there is no way to do a track-by-track even if I wanted to. But maybe we can boil it down to some highlights.

“Eden on the Air”:  the album begins with a gentle tinkling of bells and a relatively sedate vocal line over a slow, melodic keyboard and bass theme – but do not be fooled.  Trust me.

“Manhoo”:  a choppy, cheery pop song (Smith always did claim Cardiacs were just a pop band), with a manic chipmunk chorus. This may actually be one of the more straightforward songs on the album.

“Dirty Boy”: often described as the greatest song Cardiacs ever created, a nine-minute monument to the word “epic”, an utter behemoth of a track, an Everest of genius that most musicians would sell their own soul and those of their entire family tree to be able to climb just one time.  And this is only halfway through the album.

Sing to God winds up with two remarkable tracks: “Nurses Whispering Verses”, a revision of a song first released in 1981; but this version is almost as pure prog as Cardiacs ever got, albeit “prog” with a twist.

The other is “Foundling”, which to my ears rivals any of the Cardiac slow tracks, beautiful vocal themes over a rather magnificent, odd-sounding keyboard which may well be the “television organ” of the credits (an organ built by their former keyboard player William D. Drake, out of a television).

Is Sing to God their masterpiece? As with anything labelled in such a fashion, it depends on who you ask. There will always be those who prefer the rather more expansive sound of the “classic” 80s lineup, and when you play, say, “Big Ship”, it is hard to argue. As the years go by the consensus seems to be converging on the opinion that Sing to God is an album that was the pinnacle of the Cardiacs output: It certainly garnered a lot of critical acclaim, with some reviewers declaring it one of the greatest albums ever made by anyone — with the notable exception of Vox magazine which awarded it 0/10.  But see above: there is no middle ground with Cardiacs. An acquired taste, and admittedly not an easily-acquired one.  But once gotten, it will never leave.

In 2008 Tim Smith suffered a massive heart attack and stroke, and has been profoundly physically disabled since.  I think it is the sad truth that the Cardiacs are no more, as Smith’s caregivers struggle to provide him with adequate care.  A crowdfunding site has been set up to help with this:

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/timsmith