Posts tagged ‘cardiacs’

Cardiacs: “Odd Even”

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Six months ago I made some general comments about the musical vocabulary of Tim Smith (of Cardiacs). Here are some notes on “Odd Even”, a song that illustrates a lot of his standard tricks. The song is on YouTube here and my transcription is here (PDF file).

The form could not be simpler: three repetitions of verse (a 7-bar phrase repeated twice) and chorus (8 or 12 bars; in the second and third choruses the last 4 bars are repeated). The third verse is instrumental.

The introduction (which foreshadows the end of the verse phrase) is a straight-out “Smith cadence” (♭III–v–I in the key of E), which already renders it unclear whether we’re in the key of G major (starting on the tonic and repeatedly raising the tension) or E major (starting on the flat mediant and repeatedly resolving the tension). This ambiguity will persist throughout the song.

The start of the verse seems to resolve the question by claiming that we’re in G major, and could not refer more explicitly to the Lydian mode, with a C♯ over the G chord. Already this is a hint that we might be moving back to the sharp side soon. There’s an interesting clash between that C♯ of the melody and the C♮ of the C chord that arrives on the second bar. The harmony then moves through A and E back to G, apparently establishing that E is subordinate to G—but then immediately repeats the introductory Smith cadence twice, reestablishing the ambiguity.

The phrase rhythm of the first verse phrase is also quite interesting. From the melody alone it looks like a pretty straightforward [4+4]+4 beats, but the harmonic rhythm, as well as the way that the instruments enter during its first statement, implies 6+6.

The chorus starts by moving fairly strongly to the flat side of G, going all the way to E♭ before slowly relaxing back to G, and right through G all the way to Bm and E again. The feeling of resolution provided by G is lessened this time by it happening for only two beats on the second half of a bar, rather than lasting a whole measure as it did before. The melody here is really nice; a drone-like D is continually returned to on the bottom (it’s a common tone of all the scales passed through, including the E Mixolydian implied by the final destination of E) while the upper implied voice of the line descends from B♭to A to G, then returns up to B♮ and G♯ to both chromatically fill that third and also strongly establish the “surprising” E (not so surprising in reality since the G–Bm–E sequence has been repeating the whole song).

The chorus ends by following yet another path from G to E, this time by repeating the triple plagal cadence G–D–A–E and sitting on the final E for an additional bar. That relaxation of the harmonic tension certainly makes it seem like E was the final destination after all—but when the next verse starts up again, back in G, it feels like a return to the tonic rather than a jump away from it.

The instrumental verse suddenly triples the melodic speed, and it’s interesting to see such a relatively hyper solo in the middle of what is otherwise a fairly sedate song. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I first heard the song, but after listening to a lot of jazz in the last month, the solo has sort of a bebop feel to it, at least when you look at it on the page and imagine it being played by a saxophone rather than by a keyboard.

It looks complicated but it is largely doing the same things found elsewhere in this song or Smith’s work in general—emphasis on that Lydian C♯, liberal use of whole-tone scales, and near the end a gleeful insistence on B♭, a note dissonant against both G major and E major.

The song ends with a final chorus, repeating that G–D–A–E progression four times in a long exhalation and landing with relative finality on E. So maybe it was in E major all along? But I think the fight between the two potential tonics the whole time was a charade; the whole point is that both G and E are equally important, and to proclaim one of them superior to the other is to force one point of view on a song that is all about presenting two.

Cardiacs: musical vocabulary

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

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.

Cardiacs – a video primer

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Cardiacs are my new favorite band of all time. They’ve been around since the early 1980s at least but astonishingly I never heard of them until last year, when I discovered the video for their early song “Tarred and Feathered” (not for the faint of heart or ear), which made me gape deliriously with a “you can make music like that?” reaction, one I’ve only had a few times in the past (Conlon Nancarrow and Phil Kline come to mind).

They’ve been described as “pronk”, or “prog-punk”, and I guess I can see that; there’s the musical interestingness of a lot of prog, combined with a punk sort of energy. Some of my favorite bands (the Pixies, the Minutemen, etc.) have that sort of mix, in varying ratios, and it rarely fails to please me. With Cardiacs the music is even more out there than usual, though.

It is amazing how relatively obscure they are — I spend a lot of time looking for music like this, and I somehow was able to miss them for decades — but fortunately they’re really well represented on YouTube, partially because the fanbase they do have is so rabid. Here are ten links to explore, in roughly chronological order, if the above description sounds appealing.

  • Gibber and Twitch (rehearsal (with misspelled title)) is a great example of their early hyper can’t-stay-in-one-place-for-more-than-ten-seconds style, though it’s actually a 2003 rehearsal video (there are keyboard parts you can’t see played because they use backing tapes in performance these days).
  • Tarred and Feathered (video) is an amazing piece of work, with enough musical ideas for four songs, and the gonzo ‘performance’ (the keyboardist and percussionist, at least, aren’t making any attempt to play their real parts) makes for one of the more arresting videos I’ve ever seen.
  • Big Ship (live) is off-the-wall and catchy at the same time, with a giant maestoso singalong chorus at the end that gives me chills. A good litmus test – if this is too crazy for you, you probably don’t stand a chance with most of their repertoire, but if you can imagine acquiring this taste, the rest will probably follow.
  • Everything Is Easy (live) is pretty straightforward but boy does it rock.
  • Is This the Life? (video) is their one hit, so I have to include it here, but honestly it’s one of my least favorite songs of theirs – it sounds like a Cure song to me.
  • Baby Heart Dirt (live) shows off their early funhouse style with an awesome riff and some great synchronized instrumental insanity in the second half.
  • Odd Even (music) is unusual in many respects for a Cardiacs song, but it shows that Tim Smith can write pretty (but still quirky) ballads when he wants to. And that keyboard solo!
  • Fiery Gun Hand (music) rocks with a righteous fervor, and as with Baby Heart Dirt, the second half of it is stuffed with more random awesome musical ideas than you can count.
  • Dirty Boy (music) is for many fans the ultimate Cardiacs song, nine majestic minutes of slowly-moving chords, spiraling ever higher and higher.
  • Wind and Rains Is Cold (fan video) is from their last full-length (so far), Guns. Not the one song from that album I would have chosen, but it’s the one I can find on YouTube, and it’s nice to have something like this after all the rockers above to show off their range a little.