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Fire Records

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This music review business can be tricky at times. As an example, we here at EvilSponge get numerous announcements of new albums every week and they are, quite frankly, more than our tiny staff can absorb. Most of the time, I take a glance at the email, make an instant judgment as to whether something looks interesting or not, and then either listen or discard according to that snap decision. Inevitably, this means that it's easy to overlook something at first glance, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Take, for instance, Hymns, the newest release by West Coast band Cardinal. When I got the announcement regarding this album, I read it quickly to get the basic facts. Cardinal are a two piece collaboration of Richard Davies and Eric Matthews. They released a critically acclaimed self-titled record back in 1994 and then disappeared as a group for some 18 years, although the two musicians remained active. Their music was described as orchestral chamber pop, which is a broad definition. In short, the write up of this release didn't grab me (although I found the nearly two decade lull sort of intriguing), so I pushed it to the side.

Then, I found myself travelling for the day job, so I started filling up the iPad with albums so I had stuff to listen to while on the road. In a moment of weakness, I grabbed the Cardinal promo request and thought, "Well maybe I should give this a try." In retrospect, I'm certainly glad I made that impromptu decision.

In general, the music found on Hymns is very soothing, with lightly strummed but effected guitars accented by the occasional orchestral note of a horn or a woodwind. You can hear the drums, but they're not particularly driven or hard. Likewise, the vocals and melodies have an almost gentle psychedelic touch, although some of that may be due to the various effects in place. Nevertheless, everything about this record feels delicate, which perhaps explains the "chamber pop" description attached to the band.

The songs on Hymns tend to flow seamlessly into one another, so that despite the differences, it's probably best to look at the record as a whole. Admittedly, in these days of random shuffles and stand alone tunes, this perspective makes it hard to absorb everything, but I think in this case, listening to the album in one run gives the music a chance to work its soft magic on the listener.

Still, there are individual songs which stand out above the rest. For example, the opening track Northern Soul has some lovely, crispy, arpeggioed guitarwork backed by a slight tambourine tap while vaguely mournful whistles echo in the background. Similarly, General Hospital features a full on piano part that backs another delicate vocal melody (which has a doubled vocal part). Likewise, even the fast paced I Am a Roman Gypsy manages to make the more prominent drumming seem soft as it interacts with the guitars and keys.

Still if I have a favorite tune on Hymns, it's the slowly poppy Her. On this song, the drums are gentle, although the guitars are more straight-forward as they pick up a simple, repetitive melody. The vocals are lower, more breathy, and less psychedelically influenced than others. But what really makes this one stand apart is the brass bridge that gives some light to the proceeding. With that in place and the gently repetitive chorus come in about halfway through, this song is positively upbeat while still maintaining the soothing quality of the album. Nicely done and absolutely lovely.

As I mentioned at the top of this review, sometimes music is a funny thing. I never would have picked this record up on my own, but once I heard it, I found that Cardinal and Hymns filled a void I never realized existed in my musical life. Admittedly, I'm not likely to pull this out when I'm cleaning or bouncing around the house. But for those times when I'm reading and want something not too distracting to play, this will be one of my first choices.

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