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.

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12 Responses to “Cardiacs: musical vocabulary”

  1. Jeff says:

    I’ve found for people without a musical vocabulary that a good way to explain a hemiola is “America” from West Side Story (“I want to live in A- / merica”).

  2. Stephen Granade says:

    This was a thoroughly enjoyable dissection of their musical voice, and as a plus I learned the term “hemiola”. This is what comes of having a somewhat limited musical theory background: I know a lot of vague concepts but not the terminology.

  3. prowler says:

    awesome, love reading these. looking forward to more insights into tim smith’s brilliance 🙂

  4. sph says:

    Thanks for writing about the musical concepts of my on and off favorite band of all time.

  5. leif isebring says:

    have you figured out the chords to is this the life?
    do you have any other transcriptions?

    all the best

    Leif Isebring

  6. dfan says» Blog Archive » Cardiacs: “Odd Even” says:

    […] 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 […]

  7. Snardbafulator says:

    Solid stuff. Completely concur, though I’ll have to dig into the flat mediant, minor v, I movement.

    Hemiolas can also include a poly- (or cross-) rhythmic superimposition of 12, 6 or 3 against 8, 4 or 2 — or the reverse. You can write a hemiola in 4/4 by extensive use of triplets (or sextuplets) to carry (part of) the beat, just as you can in 6/8 with dotted notes. Great examples include the instrumental break in Blind in Safety, Leafy in Love, many sections of RES where 6/8 (in triplets) is crammed on top of 4/4, the instrumental line after the main chorus of Hope Day where an 8-note riff is superimposed over 6/4. It’s everywhere in Tim’s music.

    Other tools in his toolbox are the mixolydian I-bVII movement — which often serves as a bridge, e.g. in Everything Is Easy, March, Snakes Are Sleeping, Cry Your Smile Dry, etc. etc. And this love of whole-tone movement is matched by the lydian I-II movement (Buds and Spawn after the first verse, Piffol Six Times, The Breakfast Line, etc. etc. etc.)

    Okay, off to the keyboard to try an Ab — Gm — C progression and gague for myself its insidious, lydious ambiguity 🙂


  8. dfan says:

    Yeah, great point about the “reverse hemiolas”; that’s definitely a big part of his repertoire. And you’re right that the whole-tone sliding shows up a lot in both directions, down to bVII or up to II.

    The best places to check out the bIII – v – I are “Odd Even” (which I just posted a more extensive analysis of), the end of “Dirty Boy”, and the end of the “cadence theme” in “The Duck and Roger the Horse” (which also has some great hemiola examples!) which does it twice in a row – C/G – Em – A – E/B – G#m – C#.

  9. Snardbafulator says:

    As soon as you wrote out the last six chords of the outchorus of “The Duck and Roger the Horse,” I got it. A major third transposition — that’s why it’s so bizarrely emphatic! Thanks — I assumed it was something chromatic, but now I don’t even need to play that for it to make complete sense …

    My guess is that your ear’s a little more solid than mine, so I’d love your opinion and analysis of Tim’s use of suspensions — which he really seems to have taken to a whole new level, transcending even guys who clearly influenced him like early Tony Banks and Ian McDonald (or, for that matter, Dave Stewart and Mont Campbell …).

    We (even those of us unconversant in basic music theory) all know the uses and abuses of the tonic sus-4 chord as a dominant substitute. In very general terms, Tim seems to enjoy holding a tonic note (not a 4th or a flat 7th) while shifting the ground under its feet, as it were, step-wise. Good example: after the first “middle 8” in “Flap Off You Beak,” where the chords seem to rise root-wise from a second to a minor third, then a dominant, while a guitar (prolly Tim’s) is wailing away on an open tonic … a few examples of this general shtick of holding a tonic note over shifting chords include the choruses of “Baby Heart Dirt” and “Bellyeye,” and the verse intro of “Too Many Irons.”

    That’s apparently only his most basic use of the suspension concept. Tim — being the perverse bugger that he is — in some of his most characteristic chord movement likes to use a reverse resolution, i.e. moving a chord form first down and then back up to a similar chord form with more dissonance — usually a *lot* more (this is where my limited ear fails me; I couldn’t begin to guess all the notes in the chords he’s constructing). Two examples: the very Tony Banks-ish Mellotron break right before the reprise in “Fiery Gun Hand” and the extremely gnarly chords under the final “Crawling is my world” in “Dog-Like Sparky.”

    Finally, do you have any words on Tim’s general strategy of modulation/harmonic superimposition? Like, for example, how he uses semitone third movement in otherwise whole-tone structures, e.g. the big nine-chord progression (seven whole notes and two half notes) in “A Horse’s Tail? It seems to me that this is the key to his originality. I don’t know anyone else — even at the extreme RIO/avant-prog end of the spectrum like Magma or Art Bears with anything remotely like his self-described “tunesmith’s” harmonic imagination. Which is prolly why the two ascending Mellotron sus-4s into an even more dissonant chord, followed by a descending sax arpeggio annoys me so much in the chorus of “The Whole World Window.” Cuz it just suggests “In the Court of the Crimson King” way too much for my comfort.

    Tim Smith is the perfect illustration of the old expression “good composers borrow; great composers steal.” When he nicks something, 99 times out of 100 it *stays* nicked …


  10. dfan says:

    Lots of great topics here – I’ll probably turn my response into one or more upcoming posts.

  11. Zepromz says:

    @Snardbafulator. “A Horses Tail” is a Jon Poole composition, not one of Tim’s. Discuss.

  12. Snardbafulator says:


    I hear “Manhoo” is too. I guess not knowing these things comes from never being able to properly buy the music (it’s never in stock even in large American retail outlets) and thus never having a proper listing of personnel/composer credits to fondle & fetish while listening. And yes, of course I feel a little guilty about this. The Napster era made petty criminals of many of us, sadly enough …

    I hear The Wildhearts are pretty much straight-ahead hard rock. Do any of Jon’s other projects give a taste of Cardiacs prog? If not, then I guess Jon copped that style pretty directly from the author of “The Duck and Roger.” I mean, we’re only talking about a love affair with tritones here, which is fairly easy to pass along, not a particular approach to totalistic serialism or anything …


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