While everybody else was singing “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmik Twentysomething Angst Blues Again,” Cardinal set about making pristine, Anglocentric chamber pop about the heartbreak of heartbreak. Australian Richard Davies wrote and sings most of the tunes on Cardinal’s self-titled album, while Oregonian Eric Matthews concentrates on arrangements, employing pastoral horns, piano, strings, marimba, harpsichord and, most important, a keen sense of space. With subdued yet ornate drumming, the quiet music unerringly recalls Love, the Left Banke and late-era Zombies. Matthews’ meticulously elegant arrangements perfectly mirror Davies’ eloquent dissections of romantic melancholy. Although some tracks scud by almost unnoticed, ravishing numbers like “You’ve Lost Me There” and “Silver Machines” make Cardinal a keeper.
On their own, Davies’ and Matthews’ individual projects would seem to show that Cardinal, although reportedly riven by internal strife, is (was?) more than the sum of its parts. Davies arrived an international pop underground legend via Sydney’s Moles, whose first American release was a pair of 7-inch singles that, in four songs recorded in New York, display some of the Australian quartet’s very divergent instincts. In “What’s the New Mary Jane,” Davies borrows the title from a legendary Beatles outtake and piles on brass and cacophonous guitar distortion that suddenly parts to reveal a lovely bit of vintage psychedeli-pop; “Saint Jack” sounds like a long-lost ’60s beat-group hit; except for blasts of guitar distortion and David Newgarden’s guest trumpet intrusions, the cover of Don Nix’s “Going Down” follows the song’s Southern-rock blueprints with lo-fi care.
The Moles’ major US issue is the nine-song, 24-minute Instinct, a dryly rendered record of sparse, disjointed music, several steps abstracted from its pop sources, full of odd spaces, anxious changes and lyrics like “Drink until you’re blind/And you’ll feel like Ray Charles.” Somewhere between early Van Dyke Parks and Guided by Voices at their strangest (especially on the title track), tunes like “Eros Lunch (1963)” and “Did You See the Red Queen?” are not without their stately charms, although the musicianly approach doesn’t always jibe with a sensibility that’s weird going on creepy.
Following the Cardinal album, Matthews made an interesting but ultimately failed self-produced solo record. Not exactly little symphonies for the kids, the tunes are more like little string quartets for slackers. Cloaked in arrangements even more baroque than those on Cardinal, It’s Heavy in Here wears the vestments of pop — favoring melodic flourishes over sheer beat-noise — but somehow manages to avoid pop’s most distinguishing characteristic: catchiness. Matthews attempts intriguing experiments with song structure but, combined with his opaque lyrics, the songs offer no way into whatever it is that’s on his mind (arty titles such as “Forging Plastic Pain” and “Distant Mother Reality” are a tip-off). However pleasurable the music is from moment to moment — and that’s often the case — it rarely adds up to anything.
There’s Never Been a Crowd Like This, Davies’ first post-Cardinal missive, is more enticing and substantial than that. Taking it upon himself to create the first album to bear close comparison to the ineffable ’70s wry rustic folk-pop of England’s Stackridge, Davies avoids the baroque constructs of Cardinal in favor of uncomplicated light pop to carry his finespun melodies and lyrical fantasies. “My father was Stewart Granger…” begins the album-opening “Transcontinental,” and that’s not the half of it. “Sipping American beer/Thinking how it would be/To live in the green trees/Like Chip Rafferty.” “Why Not Bomb the Movies?” Smartly self-produced with a bass-drums-guitar-piano quartet, an occasional trumpeter and a pair of backing singers (Davies is credited only with vocals and harmonica), this lost-in-time album is inscrutably eccentric and equally engaging.