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The Sea Nymphs
On The Dry Land & Self-Titled Sean Kitching , November 2nd, 2016 12:42

The release of On The Dry Land, the second album recorded under the name Sea Nymphs, is undoubtedly something of an event for Cardiacs fans, being the first (largely) unheard material to have surfaced since Tim Smith’s tragic heart attack and stroke in June 2008. Comprised of Cardiacs’ core members Tim Smith, William D. Drake and Sarah Smith, Sea Nymphs showcased a gentler side to Smith and Drake’s songwriting that may appeal to fans of unique music otherwise put off by Cardiacs’ unholy racket and heart-racing tempos. Allegedly recorded, along with the first, self-titled album, sometime at the start of the 90s, On The Dry Land, remained on the shelf until Smith recently recovered sufficiently from his illness to return to the studio to oversee its completion. Whereas Cardiacs recordings are often filled to overflowing with meticulous details in amidst the treacherous sonic scree of multi-tracked guitars, drums and vocals, Sea Nymphs utilise a sparser palette of piano, mellotron, organ, sax, recorder, percussion, guitar and bass that has its closest reference point somewhere in between the psychedelic folk of The Incredible String Band and the work of classical English composer Vaughan Williams, without sounding very much like either. This really is unique and otherwordly music, at times hinting at the phantasmagorical ‘Lady In The Radiator’ song from David Lynch’s Eraserhead and at others sounding like some subtly blasphemous religious music leaking out of a ruined and vine-overrun church long relapsed into some undefined form of parallel world paganism.

According to Bill Drake: “It sort of comes less from specific musical influences than from this thing that the three of us shared that we just sort of understood. We used to hang onto each other, saying ‘we are three’ (in silly voices). We knew what we were doing but we couldn’t really put it into words. I think that maybe the thing that makes you become a writer is that you absorb everything around you from when you’re born. So you’d hear music from the television, the music your parents are playing and you’d be influenced by that without realising. TV theme songs were really good back in those days, like Animal Magic, they were quite catchy. Watch With Mother had music. We were musical magpies really. I suppose you just find your own voices out of that. Tim, Sarah and I had created a strong atmosphere in Cardiacs together and so we had that to work from. Tim and I both wrote loads of music throughout the early 80s, a lot of extra music that didn’t just go on Cardiacs records. So there was a place for another band for the three of us, as we just adored working with each other. I personally had to go to church every day at the school I went to, so you’d sing the hymn and then there’d be this amazing organ music at the end of the service and that was generally English composers, along the lines of Vaughan Williams, but also some lesser known. Pure melody, and I suppose that’s what we were in love with. Tim’s songs, as you know, are just packed with melodies.’

Surreal and ethereal throughout and retaining much of Cardiacs’ musical DNA without resorting to their usual forceful attack, most Sea Nymphs songs are perfect miniatures of around two-and-a-half minutes in length. The quality and diversity of tracks on On The Dry Land makes it immediately apparent that this is no selection of thrown together outtakes. The wonderfully sublime and eerie melody of ‘Mirmaid’s Purse’ oozes into one’s ears as though through a crack in time, all bedecked in moss and crawling with tiny insects. Title track ‘On The Dry Land,’ clocks in, perfectly formed, at 1:46, its uplifting combination of thumping brass, twinkling harpsichord-like keys and soaring, transcendent vocal an irresistible hook pulling the listener back repeatedly. Set to handclaps and the sound of smashing cutlery, ‘The Black Blooded Clam’ is the album’s most chaotic and chthonic tune, a devilish ditty calling forth the oceanic deity of its title as if the song itself were an incantation. Album closer, the puerilely titled ‘Wanky’, a snippet of which first appeared in the ‘on the tour bus’ section of Cardiacs’ mighty live film, All That Glitters Is A Mare’s Nest, is a deceptively simple looped melody of the kind one might find in a music box hidden away in some dusty attic, which in the hands of Smith and Drake attains an epic and delirious mantric-like effect that sends the spirit soaring heavenward. How very like Tim Smith’s disarming sense of humour to call such a sublime and spiritual piece of music by such a juvenile name. Both Smith and Drake have a number of standout tunes herein and it’s a joy to hear them working together on this material whilst clearly at the peak of their powers. Smith’s skill as an arranger and producer and Drake’s beautiful, classically trained piano playing makes for an idiosyncratic and hugely productive creative synergy.

With the excitement surrounding the airing of the previously unreleased material, it would be easy, though entirely remiss of me, to overlook the charms of the original self-titled album, now released for the first time on vinyl alongside On The Dry Land. It’s entirely appropriate that the copper coloured sea horse on its cover perfectly complements the tiny translucent marine creatures adorning the ‘new’ album, as the two really deserve to be heard alongside one another. ‘The Spirit Spout’ spits forth its percussive opening like an automaton on the verge of going haywire, before settling into a sparser, hymn-like tone. ‘Nil In The Nest’ twins nicely with ‘On The Dry Land’ with its oompah brass and effortlessly ascending guitar and church organ vibe. ‘Lucky Lucy,’ like many of the tunes on this album, treads a wonderfully fine line between elation and melancholy, diaphanous keyboards afloat in veils like a morning fog. ‘Dog Eats Spine’ is the Nymphs at their most surreal, Drake’s playful piano scampering in quick, light steps, mimicking the movement of tiny canine legs. ‘Sarah On A Worm’ sits nicely alongside ‘Mirmaid’s Purse’ and ‘Wanky’ as a music-box curio melody, complete within itself that could almost run eternally on repeat. The dreamy ‘Lilly White’s Party,’ seemingly composed of space more than anything else and dotted here and there with the twittering of birds and a meowing cat, transports the listener into a blissful state that’s the sonic equivalent of a slowly dawning sunrise on a luminously clear winter’s morning.

Taken together, these recordings offer an embarrassment of riches too abundant to cover each in detail and offering, in their own way, a vision of psychedelic songwriting as unique and wondrous as that other great English eccentric, Syd Barrett, if he had been a clergyman from another century, driven mad not by the excessive use of LSD but by the obsessive search for esoteric and forbidden melodies.

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