William D Drake – The Rising Of The Lights (Onomatopoeia)
So to this: if you’ve never heard (of) Cardiacs and their tentacular side projects you have the chance to experience the record I am nominally reviewing here something like afresh. Virgin ears if not a virgin cultural perspective. William D Drake was a key member of Cardiacs for, oh, decades, and he has made a record this year with his new band which is as unlike Cults or Adele or Odd Future as is a giraffe. It’s not young, it’s not radical, it’s not provocative, it’s not innovative, it’s not ever going to be top of any pops, it’s never boring and it’s the very opposite of inoffensive (which isn’t, obviously, the same as being offensive) and it’s certainly not hip. In fact, you can be pretty sure that this is music is as unhip as anything you’ve ever encountered so far in your musical listening career.
Which is no bad thing. So let it go.
There’s an obvious connection in The Rising Of The Lights to a distinctively English strand of Sixties pop, to songs such as ‘See Emily Play’ or The Village Green Preservation Society; here are those jocular organs, that mock-pomposity and wry delight in an aesthetic that is now doubly-archaic (the support band at Drake’s recent gig, Crayola Lectern, which includes ex-Cardiacs man Jon Poole among its members, played the Cardiacs’ only cover, that of The Kinks’s ‘Suzannah’s Still Alive’; they also played Robert Wyatt’s sublime ‘Sea Song’, so do, as they say, the math).
Don’t expect very much in the way of yer actual straightforward songs; not a lot of beginnings, middles and ends here. These are unfurling carpet rides of pieces, littered with snatches of hornpipes and jigs, which make sudden switch-backs from tremendous thumping keyboard tunes to howlingly naff fairground skirls, which in turn are interrupted by choral interludes belted out in absurdly over-blown but glorious trembling harmonies. There’s no casual conforming to expectations of what makes a song, which is all to the good, if you can haul yourself over the perkiness stumbling block and stop hoping for the easy comfort of a returning chorus.
‘Wholly Holey’ skips and hops from the beginning in a roil of oompahpahs. It’s quite ridiculous, really. And, look, there’s the falsetto and harmonies nicked from Queen’s A Night At The Opera, all lawns and lemonade, as English as raised eyebrows and politely furrowed brows. The elegiac ‘In An Ideal World’ has a melody-line to bring spring to frozen earth, wound through waves of rippling piano by a hurdy-gurdy (well, yes, of course).
My taste leaning more towards the stately than the jolly, I found myself skipping ‘Zeigler’ (which makes an interlaced pattern of too-pretty reels and chunks of wilfully awkward discordant piano) third time round. But Drake writes tunes and lines to make you ache, most delightfully in ‘Me Fish Bring’, which is quite, quite lovely. It’s a pastoral sentiment bomb, deploying clarinets and honey-sweet melodies and images of wafting smoke and lambs grazing in fields to thump the hell out of cynical old (or young) hearts. Oof.
For all the layers of reference, all the self-conscious playing with musics past and paster still and the grandiose, tongues-both-in-and-out-of-cheek choral tub-thumping, the album roots itself nicely with Drake’s voice and lyrics: he’s got a perfectly decent but down-to-earth voice and sings of cups of tea and jacket potatoes and the nicknames lovers give each other. Homeliness in the midst of bombast. How very – again – English.
This is music that has utterly abandoned the urge to now-ness. If you don’t find that refreshing and admirable, then do feel free to go hang with Tyler and his hipster nemeses. I don’t know much about Captain Beefheart or the Penguin Café Orchestra, some of the more obvious benchmarks I probably should be leaning on here. I’m not all that up on the post-punk that informed Cardiacs’ jagged freneticism either. I stood in the queue for Drake’s gig yesterday and all around me clever beautiful women were talking to be-T-shirted men about King Crimson and Brian Eno. Seriously. I felt a bit dim. If you absolutely must have a contemporary comparison, think of Sufjan Steven’s utterly remarkable ‘You Are The Blood’, which has a similarily contrary attitude to genre and structure, pulls wholly disparate threads together yet does gorgeous so well. Course it doesn’t sound anything like this.
So never mind the context: this is a simple plea for you to pin your ears back and listen. An appeal on behalf of the Cardiacs party to put aside prejudices and engage with what these musicians are trying to do, to make. That’s what it’s all for, isn’t it, this wordy stuff? To coax you into sharing the thrill. And now I get it. I GET IT. This music here is about beauty and joy and delight. It cares not for fashion or convention or status. It’s for people who eat their music whole.
You’d hate it.
Postscript: Beautiful, grinning, gentle, kaleidoscopically-talented, furiously energetic, fucking all-round lovely man and Cardiacs leader Tim Smith had a severe stroke in 2008 from which he is still recovering. There will be no more Cardiacs for the foreseeable future. He is very much loved; there was a tribute album made last year to which the likes of Ultrasound, Katherine Blake, The Magic Numbers etc. contributed cover versions of his songs, the proceeds going directly to his care. If you want to check out his songwriting, there’s a place to start.
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