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Cardiacs: musical vocabulary

It’s been a while since I first posted about Cardiacs but I’ve been fitfully taking some notes and doing some transcribing, and I should post some of it before I forget about it entirely. If I list a song here without a video link you can probably find it in the previous post.

Although a lot of the music of Tim Smith (leader and main songwriter of Cardiacs) might seem pretty random, he has a pretty consistent vocabulary that makes it easier to get a handle on his songs after you’ve heard a few of them. Going through his oeuvre, here are the things that stand out to me:

Melodic movement by whole tones. One common consequence is the use of chord sequences involving I, ♭­VII, and ♭­VI (think “All Along the Watchtower” for one classic example). Even more common is the next item:

Use of the Lydian scale. That’s a scale on the white notes if you start on F. Its distinguishing characteristic is that it starts with three whole-tone steps (F-G-A-B) rather than two whole-tone steps followed by a semitone (F-G-A-B♭­). Smith really loves that sharp fourth and it shows up all over the place in his music.

v – I and ♭­III – v – I cadences. These are sort of related to whole-tone melodic movement as well. If you play a normal V – I cadence (say, B major to E major) but use a flatted seventh instead of a leading tone (D♮ instead of D♯ in this case), so that you’re moving by a whole step instead of a semitone to get to the tonic note, you get a v – I cadence instead (B minor to E major), which has a much more ambiguous quality. In Cardiacs songs, this frequently comes in the context of the progression ♭­III – v – I (e.g., G – Bm – E), which has quite an unstable feel. Often the ♭­III has been heavily tonicized, which can make the sudden shift feel like the rug is being pulled out from under you; when repeated, it can also create the impression of shifting back and forth between two tonics, never fully coming to rest on one or the other. “Odd Even”, for example, is fundamentally based on a G – Bm – E progression, and it’s hard to decide whether to take G or E as the key of the song. The coda of “Dirty Boy” is another classic example that just repeats this progression over and over.

Quick-changing chords, often every other beat and accompanied by their dominants. The harmonies can often move at a dizzying pace, but because Smith usually precedes or follows a chord with one a fifth away, you get a little more stability and each chord at least has a bit of context to it. “Anything I Can’t Eat” is a classic example (sorry about the bad recording).

Hemiolas and other rhythmic ambiguity. A hemiola is when you take a six-beat-long phrase and go back and forth between treating it as two groups of three and three groups of two, creating a sort of rhythmic pun that throws the listener off. Smith uses explicit hemiolas (“Gibber and Twitch” and “Too Many Irons in the Fire” both switch from 3/4 to 6/8 mid-chorus) but is also happy to use any other technique he can to disturb the perceived meter of the song.

Tempo shifts, particularly a slow last chorus. It’s astonishing how effective this is, given its relative crudity — just shift down a gear entering the final chorus and have everybody sing along, and the majesty of the song doubles. There are probably ten Cardiacs songs that do this, though it never seems to get old; the classic example to me is “Big Ship”.

I am probably the first person to ever compare Tim Smith to the classical composer Olivier Messiaen, but one thing they do have in common is a very personal musical vocabulary (in Messaien’s case, it’s things like birdsong and harmonies built on top of palindromic modes). In both cases, initial experiences can be rather befuddling, but once you start hearing the common building blocks from piece to piece, the broader context helps in making sense of each one.

Next up, a case study of one Cardiacs song.