Richard Davies and Eric Matthews are, in a way, unsung chamber-pop heroes. When they released their eponymous debut as Cardinal in 1994, it flew under the radar, but it ended up becoming one of those hidden pop gems. Its understated, lush yet gauzy orchestration, its penchant for near-neo-classical flourishes, and its bittersweet, dreamy feel made it an often arresting listen. Cardinal is a perfect headphones record, because it’s best heard to alone, as a one-person maudlin listening party. It’s insular, perhaps, but also comforting and much less arch than, say, Belle and Sebastian.
But Cardinal also gained its notoriety as much through its rarity as through its quality. Davies and Matthews, apparently at odds during the making of the record, split right after the album was released, and Cardinal was no more. So there was some lore around the album, some feeling of a band whose potential went unfulfilled. It became popular, in certain circles, because it wasn’t popular at all, because the band imploded after the album’s release.
But now Cardinal is back with a sophomore record, Hymns, 18 years after the duo’s debut. So all of a sudden we get to hear any of that lost potential that got away from them back in the mid-‘90s. As pretense-free pop song writers, with a knack for theatrical (if slightly muted) flourish, the return of Davies and Matthews should be a welcome one. Early songs like opener “Northern Soul” and “Carbonic Smoke Ball” invite us back into their sonic world with confidence. There are no reticent first steps 17 years later. “Northern Soul” is blessed-out psych-pop at its best. The guitars ripple out in a sweet, early-morning haze around the dreamy vocals. The layers pile up and strengthen each other, so while the song is unassuming, its hook embeds itself deeply, and the chorus takes on a subtle flourish that makes the quiet pop song more than it first seems.
It also warms you up for “Carbonic Smoke Ball”, the album’s finest song. It takes the pleasant haze of their sound and twists it into something with a longer shadow. The drums thump, they hone the guitar riffs into sharp angles, which play nicely off the warm bed of horns. Even the treated vocals, watery and echoing throughout, feel more organic couched within these rock-music textures. Along with the muffled garage rock of “Love Like Rain”, this song introduces a new edge to Cardinal’s sound, a buzzing heft that went largely unexplored on the first record. As a power-pop act, it turns out their flourish.
It’s in those fresh moments that Hymns feels like a vital and necessary new document from these guys. In these songs, you can see why they’ve reunited, why they needed to get these new songs down, why they needed to put out a second record. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the record is puzzling. It’s not puzzling because it’s bad – in fact, songs like “Kal” and “Rosemary Livingston” hold up against anything on Cardinal – and it’s not puzzling because it’s vastly different from what they’ve done. In fact, it’s a perplexing album because it feels almost exactly like the first record, right down to its sequencing. Halfway through the record, we get “General Hospital”, a piano ballad just like Cardinal‘s “You Lost Me There”. Like its predecessor, “General Hospital” is a plodding song that brings the album’s sweet energy to a halt. From its on-the-nose imagery – check out the whispery calls to a “nurse” – to the melodramatic horns, the song is just too much, too fey to hold together, and too blatant in comparison to subtler (and better) moments on the record.
Similarly, the instrumental track near the end of the record, “Surviving Paris”, falls into the same quasi-classical rut that “Public Melody #1” did back in 1994. Cardinal works when the band folds in slight classical elements into its pop vision, but diving wholesale into chamber music (not chamber-pop) feels too self-serious here, too stilted and cold. These moments drag down an album that already exists firmly in mid-tempo. A song like “Her” is a bit too plodding to hold together, but it wouldn’t stand out so much if “General Hospital” and “Surviving Paris” didn’t also stop any momentum Hymns earns.
What’s interesting about Hymns is that now the rarity of the first record, the idea of it as this hidden pop artifact from a short-lived defunct band, is mostly gone. There’s another chapter in the Cardinal legacy, but it reads an awful lot like the chapter we already had. So while it has its fine moments, in the end Hymns falters too often by mimicking the first record, and, in that way, the impact of both records may be diminished.