Cardiacs have always appeared impervious to the cover version. Some things however simply happen out of necessity; as is the case with Leader of The Starry Skies. Since suffering a stroke in 2008, Tim Smith has been in hospital, where he remains in a fragile state. Raising money to get Tim home and pay for his care is the main impetus behind this album, and a host of friends, family and bands that have been influenced by Cardiacs have all given their time and talents to this collection of covers.
Cardiacs are a band that inspires a driven devotion in their fans and it was Ultrasound’s unconditional love of Cardiacs that bought them back together. They’ve found their feet quickly, contributing a fairly straight version of the anthemic ‘Big Ship’. Tiny’s slightly unhinged vocal delivery clearly comes from the heart but it’s the celebratory burst of the climax where it really comes alive. The band almost emulates the sense of release that Cardiacs themselves conjured up whenever they played it live. It’s good to have them back.
Oceansize put in a fine appearance with ‘Fear’. Direct and to the point, their version of this Spratleys Japs track is considerably meatier than the original, and although distinctive elements tie the song to its source (the twinkling keyboards for example) they succeed in making it their own.
Andy Partridge of XTC appears with Robert White for ‘Lillywhite’s Party’, which sails close to the Sea Nymphs original. There’s a slight Eno influence creeping in from somewhere, but it retains an undeniable aching beauty. It a quality also found in Steven Wilson’s version of ‘Stoneage Dinosaurs’ which somehow manages to make a song that already drips with emotion even more affecting. His vocals are heartbreaking, making the clashing images of war, childhood and teatime gameshows resonate with fresh significance.
Cardiacs most famous moment, ‘Is This The Life’, is twisted by Mikrokosmos into a gothic-industrial epic. Bic Hayes’ delicate voice is nearly washed away by crackling electronic glitches and searing guitar interjections; it’s a colossal musical landscape for him to inhabit and although the thundering drum pattern that crashes in half way through gives some context, Hayes still floats as if lost in space.
The Trudy bring their sunkissed pop to ‘Day is Gone’, accentuating the fact that Cardiacs, despite all the fiddly bits are basically a damn fine pop band. Max Tundra’s lo-fi nursery school pop approach achieves a similar effect on ‘Will Bleed Amen’ injecting it with a wide-eyed naiveté and a healthy shot of Tartrazine. Also stripping things right back are North Sea Radio Orchestra whose bare bones folk take on March exposes the simplistic nature of the original’s melodies, allowing it burrow deep into the ears.
Perhaps the pick of the bunch is Sidi Bou Said’s ‘Victory Egg’. Mixing Celtic folk influences with a relentless bottom heavy grunge riff vocalists Mel Woods and Claire Lemmon cascade across barrages of machine-gun drums with a graceful elegance.
Members of the Cardiacs family are all present and correct too. Kavus Torabi’s Knifeworld sniff at ‘The Stench of Honey’ and nail it perfectly, giving it a distinctly ramshackle rustic feel. Mark Cawthra’s ‘Leave Along My Plastic Doll’ boils with raw emotion sounding for all the world like the blues played in an empty church, whilst William D Drake, whose keyboards did so much to define the classic Cardiacs sound provides an almost unbearable poignancy to the gentle lilt of Savour.
There are numerous high points on Leader of The Starry Skies. Cardiacs fans can rest assured that the songs that they hold dear have been treated with the respect they deserve. Those new to Tim Smith’s songs will find plenty to delight. One of the things that these re-workings bring to light is the strength of the melodies contained within the originals. These aren’t just pop songs, there’s something far deeper going on. Many have the familiarity and spirituality of hymns. For all of the talk of Tim Smith being “our” Zappa, perhaps the reality is closer to home – he’s our generation’s Elgar – Home of Fadeless Splendour, ably handled with a keen sense of wit by The Scaramanga Six goes some way to supporting this.
A second CD of material is available when pre-ordering this album. In typical Cardiacs fashion, that’s being kept secret for now. However if the quality is as high as it is on this album it too will be worthy of laudation.