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Various Artists (Tributes) - Leader of the Starry Skies: A Tribute to Tim Smith, Songbook 1 CD (album) cover

LEADER OF THE STARRY SKIES: A TRIBUTE TO TIM SMITH, SONGBOOK 1

Various Artists (Tributes)

 

Various Genres

4.54 | 14 ratings

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iguana
4 stars WARNING: LENGTHY REVIEW AHEAD!

if you buy (make that BUY, not copy, download, rip, stream) this one, you will contribute to a very good cause indeed. tim smith, the enigmatic singer, guitarist and songwriter/composer of that seminal english underground band Cardiacs suffered a severe stroke in 2008 which has seen him under supervision and in painfully slow recovery since. all Cardiacs-related activities (themselves limited to the occasional annual UK tour anyway) had consequently been halted and the proceeds of this album's sales will go directly to tim smith's support.

tim smith, one of these mysterous and obscure figures in british pop this side of syd barrett and nick drake may be as far from being a household name as one can imagine, but it is safe to say that within his and indeed Cardiacs' prime, their collective output has gone some way in influencing many further acts that were to see better exposure later on or even contemporarily. furthermore, it is interesting to note that this is definitely not a Cardiacs tribute album. apart from said prog-pop-punk-menace that made waves below of what magazines like Q and rolling stone deemed consumeable, tim smith dabbled with many musical projects covering a wide scope and at times including former Cardiacs cohorts and several new faces.

obviously most of these never seriously broke into the mainstream and whilst qualitatively a good thing the sheer obscurity of the album will harm its sales. or, to put it bluntly: why should you care?

you should care, because it's good, idiosyncratic, unique, quintessentially english and lovingly executed. here we have an array of former and current musical partners, quiet legends and utter basket cases offering a concise study of what tim smith's twisted genius seemed to be about. considering that big names such as Blur, Radiohead, Marillion or mike patton' numerous endeavours have all previously sung praises for the kingston-upon- thames native it is a bit disappointing that none of these are featured here. given that all these bands operate cottage style these days it shouldn't have been a problem to chip in a track or two. oh, well, it does say "songbook 1" on the cover, i suppose.

but that's all there is to moan. former Cardiacs keyboard lunatic william d. drake takes his wheezy harmonium and melodica stylings into performing the stately "savour" (from "tim smith's ocean land world") to set things off in style. next up are 90's indie types Ultrasound, especially reformed for this occasion, doing a faithful rendition of one of Cardiacs' greatest non-hits, "big ship", and those who are familiar with that montrously anthemic tune may also agree in that it is something that must be worshipped, let alone altered in any way. perfection. mancunian (and sadly recently dissolved) post-rockers Oceansize (currently most vocal in laudation of Cardiacs and tim smith) are having a go at "fear" from Spratleys Japs' "pony" album. and the album even takes us back to smith's most humble beginnings as Cardiac Arrest back to 1978 with first-timer mark cawthra creating an epic version of "let alone my plastic doll", one of their earliest outings. great song. "day is gone", on a par with "big ship" as one of Cardiacs' most infectous moments, is represented in a faithful rendition by The Trudy, however, with tim smith's patented antisolo guitar stylings replaced with a more traditional sounding solo ... not really my loss though.

"foundling", off Cardiacs' double album "sing to god" suffers a little by marc larcombe's overtly sweet vocal delivery which can be a bit grating at times, but the fact that he also singlehandedly caters for the rest of the mournful yet tasty arrangement by means of piano, hurdy-gurdy and autoharp more than makes up for that. further notable tracks include "shaping the river", beautifully rendered by one-time All About Eve chanteuse julianne regan and "the stench of honey" (from Cardiacs' seminal "on land an in the sea" album) by KnifeworldD, led by present day Cardiacs guitarist kavus torabi, an independent avant garde fixtured himself. lovely version which conveys smith's penchant for english brass band and fairground whimsicality. and off we are into the whimsical "a little man and a house", quite faithfully rendered by The Magic Numbers and it's weird to hear this almost music hall-like ditty sung with a soft american midwest accent as opposed to tim smith's nagging thames english snarl. things become even more interesting as we approach "is this the life" with trepidation... now, this is far from an easy one ... Cardiacs' "is this the life", at least in my book, is one of those great lost 1980's pop classics, a songwriting monolith down to the tiniest guitar accent, which, just like "big ship" must not be touched and twisted at one's own peril. but Mikrokosmos pull it off. the jaunty pop-punk anthem of yore with its strident guitar riff and more smithian antisoloing has been transformed into a slowburning electronica ballad, full of plaintive vintage organs, a prevailing analogue hiss and mournful vocals not a million miles removed from anglican hymn grandeur, all this morphing into a magnificently percussive coda with a haunting guitar sustain drone.

the album's quality remains high as it proceeds through the North Sea Radio Orchestra's take on "march", a bright eyed romp with another lovely music hall/show tune interlude and the gloomy electronic melancholy of "lilly white's party" beautifully executed by robert white and XTC's andy partridge, which offers a welcome breather within all the twist-and-turn jittery. rose kemp's utter basketcaseness however put's one's resilience to the test on "wind and rains is cold" (off Cardiacs' final studio album "guns"), not a problem for those who have already got this far though. Miranda Sex Garden's katherine blake takes us into an elfin belcanto rendition of "up in annie's room" from The Sea Nymphs album which almost unexpectedly morphs into steven wilson's (Porcupine Tree) beautiful version of another long lost Cardiacs classic, "stoneage dinosaurs", an appropriate lamento to mark the occasion and to close this very elaborate collection of music, songs, ideas and ideology. one more encore ensues with The Scaramanga Six's version of Cardiacs' latter day call-to-arms, their proverbial national anthem "the alphabet business concern (home of fadeless splendour)", minus the brass band orchestration and church organ of the original and more in a rock band mode, but nevertheless a worthy closer to a very special album.

no barcode and only a very short catalogue number. but properly packaged with an 8-page booklet featuring lots of useful track information and there is also a very limited version on 180g vinyl planned. a highly demanding listen but ultimately a satisfying one.

spare a thought for tim smith, an ailing madcap genius who has significantly enhanced some people's lives.

iguana | 4/5 |

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