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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Cardiacs: Songs For Ships And Irons


1) Big Ship; 2) Tarred And Feathered; 3) Burn Your House Brown; 4) Stone Age Dinosaurs; 5) Plane Plane Against The Grain; 6) Everything Is Easy!; 7) There's Too Many Irons In The Fire; 8) All Spectacular; 9) Blind In Safety And Leafy In Love; 10) Loosefish Scapegrace; 11) All His Geese Are Swans!.

The title of this LP is an amalgamation of Big Ship and There's Too Many Irons In The Fire, a mini-LP and an EP that were both released in 1987. In 1991, the band put them together on one CD, added a few extra rare B-sides and one archive track, and ended up with a fairly weighty addition to the catalog. And I mean «weighty» in an almost literal sense, because this is where Cardiacs finally begin to capitalize on the «progressive promise» and add epic scope, pomp, and symphonism to the still rather lightweight ska-pop-punk exercises of the previous albums. Not consistently so, but enough for symph-rock fans to take proper notice.

The very first song, ʻBig Shipʼ, sounds like a cross between classic Queen and some big, brawny arena rock band with a penchant for stomping power chords. Loud, martial guitars, organ a-plenty, vocals that get in your face with a vengeance, and plenty of stops, starts, and tempo changes in between the oratorio-like choruses to ensure that this is Inventive Art. Unfortunately, the song itself just isn't very good: the bombastic sections are too simple and repetitive, relying on huge­ness of sound rather than a classy chord sequence. I wish I could get inspired by it, but neither the lyrics nor the melody lend themselves to coherent interpretation.

So I start feeling more at ease with the ensuing songs that tone down the seriousness and bring back the playfulness, craziness, and ska-punkish spirit, while at the same time continuing to ex­plore all sorts of novel ideas. ʻTarred And Featheredʼ and ʻBurn Your House Brownʼ leap along like mad, with vaudeville piano rolls alternating with avantgarde dissonances, no melodic section lasting uninterrupted for longer than a dozen bars (10cc said hello), and your head having serious trouble assimilating it all. My only problem is that they are less capable than, say, Zappa to knock all these things together into some surrealist musical — the lyrics make too little sense, and the band shows a very limited sense of humor.

As we go on and on, relatively short crazyass romps like these multiply in number, sometimes interrupted by slower and statelier pieces of the ʻBig Shipʼ variety — such as ʻStone Age Dino­saursʼ, a slow, brass heavy hymn; and the instrumental ʻAll His Geese Are Swans!ʼ, which just acts as a foothold for some guitar and keyboard soloing, some of it very psychedelic, but most of it rather uninspired. Also, at least one track, ʻLoosefish Scapegraceʼ, combines both approaches, star­ting out as eccentric vaudeville and becoming almost a requiem midway through.

Nevertheless, even if this may all be a technical advance over The Seaside, emotionally these songs are not much of a departure: still too much of a band that simply wants to be eccentric without presenting enough reasons for this eccentricity. Once the initial wave of amusement or amazement at how effortlessly they weave in elements of symphonism and music hall is over, you might want to ask yourself, "so what was that all about?" and realising that you don't even know in what direction the answer might lie. There's plenty of energy and a lot of fuss, but way too much ado about nothing, if you ask me — «form over substance» in the flesh. Then again, maybe it's all about reaching that other plane of consciousness.


  1. I think the instrumental sections of The Big Ship are well worth listening to if you treat it as, say, bombastic ambient, something that Eno might write in collaboration with 80's era Genesis if he were inclined to. I think it's pleasant enough, even if the song itself is not very memorable.

  2. Also, for all the complexity of something like Tarred & Feathered I find the instrumental riffs easy to hum along with while it's playing, so that seems like a success. I don't think the song benefits too much from all the elements they throw into it though and in the end I don't know if I like it too much.

  3. Things will be consolidated in the next release.

    In defense of this album... OK, these two EPs... well, they were made in the season of 86/87. ;-) Few things from this season were really inspired.