When Tim Smith was taken ill back in 2008, it seemed as if a door to a different world had been slammed shut. In the land, sea and air of the place that Cardiacs called home, things were peculiar. Sometimes there were lovely giraffes eating leaves and running fast, and occasionally there’d be a hastily assembled dog complete with insect hooves. Musically, Cardiacs could be a daunting proposition too.
Time changes, key changes, stops, starts, fiddly bits, punk outbursts, heavenly praises and orchestral feats of extreme grandeur were all part of the band’s make-up, and often all those aspects were thrown into a single song. It might have sounded confusing, but once it clicked, nothing by any other band could possibly ever measure up. For some though, it never made sense, and Cardiacs could drive some to absolute distraction.
Yet, there was another side to Tim Smith’s songwriting. It wasn’t all sonic puzzles begging to be solved before running off into the distance. Sometimes he channelled a softer side. An offshoot of Cardiacs, Sea Nymphs was Tim Smith, William D Drake (keyboards/vocals) and Sarah Smith, and it’s fair to say that their music was a little more consistent and focused than that of the band that spawned them.
Their debut album was recorded in 1992, and explored calmer territory. There were hints of folk, dancehall and snatches of classical influence, something that had always been present in Cardiacs’ work (check out Dirty Boy for a stunning example) but had not always been quite so easy to identify. After what seems like an eternity, the door to the Cardiacs world has creaked open once again. Peeping through to the other side, there’s a beach and an expanse of water and the gentle call of the Sea Nymphs. On Dry Land was recorded at the same time as the band’s ’92 debut, and as such continues in very much the same vein. Essentially acting as something of a companion piece, or the second half of a double album lost in the post for the best part of 25 years or bobbing around on the ocean, like a message in a bottle.
Tim Smith’s return to the studio is something to be truly thankful for, and under his guidance this album has been polished and rendered shipshape. The music itself is at times absolutely sublime and that much is evidence right from very first moments of After, which feels like a sweet summer breeze carrying the voices of children out across a babbling stream. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Eating A Heart out stays in that magical, ephemeral place with Sarah’s vocals floating above what appears to be a simplistic nursery tune. Where Cardiacs might have taken such an idea down a darkened corridor, Sea Nymphs allow for an almost meditative state to play out.
Moving into more emotional territory, Big River strips things back and gives a chance to hear Tim Smith singing over acoustic guitar. His voice is one of the few things that is never mentioned in reviews of Cardiacs, but perhaps that’s because there’s so much else going on that it’s hard to focus. Here, he’s front and centre, and it’s astonishing how fragile and emotional he sounds when in isolation. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking performance. Bill Drake’s wonky piano sea shanty Sea Snake Beware also serves as a kind of solo piece, and like the contributions from the other Sea Nymphs it succeeds by virtue of it’s weird mix of childlike simplicity (Bill’s vocals) and complicated musical flourishes (almost everything else).
When their individual strengths are foregrounded, they’re good, but it’s when they come together, fully in harmony they’re positively sublime. Examples are scattered thoughout the album, but the clanking steam powered Black Blooded Clam is perhaps where it comes together perfectly. Switching between awkwardness and dainty surefootedness, it’s peculiar yet somehow makes perfect sense. At times it’s like a Mozart piece taken apart and reassembled by Heath Robinson.
There’s a ratchety aesthetic to be found on a number of these songs, Mirmaid’s Purse could easily have been found soundtracking the village scenes on Final Fantasy VII, whilst The Sea Ritual initially sounds as if Bill Drake is defending his piano from an onslaught of angry crows. Closing track Wanky meanwhile does what it says on the tin, and is a bit of a wanky classical piece, perfect for performing compulsory ablutions to, at the behest of an oppressive overlord.
There’s plenty to love about On Dry Land. It is quite a deceptive album however; initially seeming simplistic but slowly unveiling an array of hidden depths. Turns out we’re not on dry land at all, but on board a big ship with a fantastic house band.