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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cardiacs: A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window


1) A Little Man And A House; 2) In A City Lining; 3) Is This The Life?; 4) Interlude; 5) Dive; 6) The Icing On The World; 7) The Breakfast Line; 8) Victory Egg; 9) R.E.S.; 10) The Whole World Window.

Apparently, this album came out at a very wrong time — even though ʻIs This The Life?ʼ ended up being the band's highest success on charts, the album as a whole was critically panned for its attempt to «revive progressive rock». Had the band waited at least a decade longer, after Radio­head inadvertently melted the ice with OK Computer, the critics may have been somewhat more benevolent — but in 1988, it was all about Sonic Youth and Pixies, and Tim Smith's mix of the carnivalesque with the symphonic just sounded like an irritant to most people's ears. Even if direct comparisons to ELP or even to Marillion (!!) that appeared in contemporary reviews were all just blatant idiocy.

Not that the record is above criticism, of course. It continues and, it could be argued, brings to the highest possible peak the band's personal relation with unpredictable absurdism — one reason why all these «prog» comparisons fail utterly, because unlike ELP or Marillion, Cardiacs never for one second take themselves literally-seriously. By now, Tim Smith sounds like a helium-inflated quasi-parody on Peter Hammill, and the music alternates between «symphony orchestra» and «circus» modes at will, defying all musical logic, sequencing expectations, and simply com­mon sense. There's but two possible ways one can react to this. You can either prefer to have your mind blown — «wow! what was that I've just heard?» — or to have your mind insulted — «oh no, why did I have to waste time on this meaningless shit?»

I will try to combine both ways, because in a relative universe they're both right. On one hand, this is not even an album about madness — this is an album that is meant to make absolutely no sense in our reality. On the other hand, this album invents a new reality of its own, which has certain intersection points with our reality, but largely inverts it. Major is minor, minor is major, happy is sad, funny is bitter, dark is light, black is white and so on. So whenever these guys start whirring and flurring about in a carousel waltz or one of their merry ska interludes, remember that they bleed. Whenever they start playing a shrill, stormy, delirious guitar solo, keep in mind that they thrive. It's an Alice-style mirror world, and you either adapt to it or throw up.

It is a little funny that the most popular song on the album, ʻIs This The Life?ʼ, was actually the third recorded version — as you remember, it made its debut already on Toy World, and it really represents an older stage in the development of the band. Granted, this version is at least expertly produced, with the sax, guitar, and keyboard parts in the climactic instrumental passage perfectly separated from each other; but I do believe that the song's modest success, after the single began to be played on UK radio, was largely due to its similarity with contemporary Cure — not only does Tim Smith sound as bleeding-desperate-romantic as Robert Smith here (well, they don't share that last name for nothing; aren't all Smiths a gloomy breed?), but the overall «depth» of the production and the howling guitars are quite Curish as well.

This hardly applies to stuff like ʻA Little Man And A Houseʻ or ʻIn A City Liningʼ, though, whose music is way too upbeat, keyboard-depending, and quirky to invite comparisons with The Cure or with just about anybody else in 1988. If there is one serious influence from the classic prog era that the music brings to mind, it is Peter Gabriel in early Genesis — a band that also liked to turn comic into tragic and backward in the blink of an eye (think ʻHarold The Barrelʼ or the "you play the hobbyhorse" section of ʻDancing With The Moonlit Knightʼ), although never taking it to the hyperdrive level of Smith and Co. However, behind all of Gabriel's clowning lay an attempt to create meaningful art rather than mysterious dadaism.

Even when, after all the odd clowning, the band winds things up with a slow, stately finale (ʻThe Whole World Windowʼ), all grand piano chords and solemn sax soloing, it is hard to understand what the solemnity is all about. As much as I'd like to identify with the protagonist's emotions, it is hard to do because either the protagonist is from a different planet or he's just a bullshitter. I'd still take this sort of finale over, say, anything stately, anthemic, and utterly trivial by Freddie Mercury, but I'd have to take it on probation — this grandiose soundscape seems to pretend to celebrating beauty, but I am not even sure if we are on the same plane with Cardiacs when thin­king about beauty.

Essentially, the record is an unlockable puzzle — melodic and listenable all the way through (at least you will not have to struggle with ugly chords and unhygienic rhythms à la Trout Mask Replica), but an emotional conundrum which, for most people, will at best result in an "I don't get it, what do they expect from me?" reaction, and at worst, in a "stop bullshitting me" outburst. But even if occasionally I begin to tend towards the latter, I still cannot help admiring all the crea­tivity, energy, and total dedication; and since even bullshitting can be raised to a form of weird art, I give the album a thumbs up all the same — not to mention the balls it took to release some­thing like that in 1988, when negative critical reaction could be so easily predicted.


  1. The comment system still on the fritz?
    Not anymore.

    OK. This record is described elsewhere as: "Think Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa getting a good kicking from the Pistols and Madness in a dark alley"

    For all the good that punk revolution did to music, punks also happened to be the "useful idiots" of the Reagan-Thatcher era for music. The baby was thrown also with the dirty water. The weirdness of the 70-ies was a big no-no throughout the eighties.

    I wish this album was released somewhere in the season of 77/78 to show the likes of Gentle Giant and others where to go.

    In other words, this album wouldn't be so out of this world in 1978, as it was in 1988.

  2. Brilliant Review! Your impressions are totally aligned with my own. For too long now I've viewed Cardiacs as a guilty/solo listening pleasure, fearing the adverse reactions that you so accurately describe.

    On another note, 1970's-era Split Enz are an unconfirmed band influence .... especially the first 2 NZ albums that fuse wacky carnivalesque music hall with Genesis-prog and similar nasally vocals .... the whole concoction filtered thru Devo & Madness to lend it some semblance of contemporary relevance (though they appeared to have failed on this front - standing apart from almost all genres at the time).

    1. I have always wondered about the influence of Split Enz on the Cardiacs. Or, indeed, vice versa. The Cardiacs remained true to their muse though. Split Enz sold out for the success. Admittedly with some excellent songwriting but, safe nonetheless.

  3. Split Enz an influence on the nascent Tim Smith? I think almost inescapable given that the merry NZ’ers had essentially relocated from Sydney to the UK between 1976 and 1980 .... easily capturing the 1977/78 formation of Cardiacs. You can discern the stop-start structural similarities in tracks like Late Last Night/Walking Down A Road from Second thoughts; and My Mistake / I See Red from subsequent releases ... albeit sped-up and taken to the next level by Smith and Co.