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


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The Hemulen
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars "This is not just a tribute album. It is an endeavour borne of love."

So says the back cover of this sumptuously produced expression of decades-worth of admiration for one of the most underrated and unfairly overlooked composers in the history of British rock. Were this a tribute album to any musician other than Tim Smith I would consider that "endeavour borne of love" stuff to be a tad trite, but knowing as I do how the music of Mr Smith, (be it through his work under the guise of Spratley's Japs, Oceanlandworld, The Sea Nymphs or his most well-known and enduring project Cardiacs) has the uncanny ability to transform minds, delve deep into whatever it is that makes us think and feel and push and pull at it in a way that is utterly unique and endlessly rewarding, knowing as I do how such music can stir up and instill a lifetime of loyalty and devotion, how it can inspire and strengthen us when the world and its problems appear to be insurmountable, knowing as I do the myriad artists who have been encouraged, nurtured or inspired from afar by Tim's music (only a smattering of which are represented across the two discs of this project), knowing as I hope all who read this do the awful and tragic circumstances which brought about this monumental celebration of one man's genius (not a word I deploy frivolously), knowing all that those words do not seem trite. I would expect nothing less.

The very first breaths of former Cardiacs keyboardist William D. Drake's desperately poignant cover of Savour (from Tim's solo album "Oceanlandworld") set the tone for the remainder of the album. All that love, respect and admiration, all that sorrow and a keen desire to do the music justice has pushed every contributor to not merely cover Smith's work but to inhabit it. Each offering is an account of the artists' own relationship with Tim's music and (where relevant) the man himself.

The diversity of styles and genres represented on this album is a testament to the immense scope and polymorphic nature of the source material. The contributing artists span from alt rock to electronic to contemporary folk and back again. The majority of these covers are bold and idiosyncratic interpretations, but few (if any) sacrifice the essence of what made the originals so great. The unusual vocals and unflinchingly avant-garde elecrionics of Rose Kemp vs Rarg's take on "Wind and Rains is Cold" (originally a rather sweet off-kilter pop song with a touch reggae when it first appeared on Cardiacs' "Guns" album) may be a step too far for many ears, but even the wildest of re-imaginings on this album seem to hold true to that initial promise of "an endeavour borne of love".

I don't wish to dwell too much on personal favourites as I believe each and every contribution to this album to be truly worthy of laudation. However, special mentions must go to William D. Drake's "Savour" (I sincerely doubt I'm the only one to have shed a tear whilst listening to it), Max Tundra's characteristically bright and energetic take on "Will Bleed Amen", Knifeworld's sumptuous and complex arrangement of "The Stench of Honey" (an oft-overlooked Cardiacs song which I've always considered to be up there with the very very best of 'em), former Cardiacs guitarist Bic Hayes' (under the project name mikrokosmos) immensely powerful version of "Is This the Life?" and Robert White's arresting, minimalist interpretation of Sea Nymphs favourite "Lilly White's Party".

This album is an extraordinary achievement and I can only hope that it succeeds in all its aims (in addition to raising money to pay for Tim's care and recovery, this is an attempt to help raise awareness of his unique and deeply rewarding work). It has already succeeded in bringing together a great many musicians and listeners in an act of collective celebration, and has even prompted the official reformation of the short-lived but fondly remembered Ultrasound. Here's hoping that the tantilising subheading "Songbook 1" eventually fulfills its promise...

Note on "A Loyal Companion": I have focused on the main album for most of this review, but a generous bonus CD featuring additional contributions was included with pre-ordered copies. At time of writing, a few remaining copies of this CD are available for purchase separately on the genepool website. I would urge anyone looking to invest in the main album to pick this one up as well. It is every bit as bold, original and powerful as its big sister, with some particularly brilliant offerings from The Gasman, Sidi Bou Said, Bug Prentice, Sterbus, Agency, Spiritwo, Eureka Machines... Frankly, it's all just wonderful, but with such fantastic source material that's hardly a surprise, is it?

Report this review (#370122)
Posted Sunday, January 2, 2011 | Review Permalink

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.

Report this review (#439577)
Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 | Review Permalink
RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
5 stars WARNING: SUPER LONG REVIEW I'm trying really hard to write something about this album but I don't know where to start. Let me start with this: Buy this album, as it is for a good cause. The best cause. This tribute is for a very very special man named Tim Smith. Who is Tim Smith? Well Son (surprise by the way you're all my sons- famous play reference intended), Tim Smith is more or less the greatest musical genius of the 20th century. To have a mind which is able to write things so very complex, yet so harmonically perfect and beautiful isn't seen often. In fact I would go to say that only Tim has such a mind unbelievable genius that just leaks and spreads to everyone he knows and to anyone who ever listened to his music. His biggest project Cardiacs, is a rather unknown yet passionately followed by every fan. Never have I seen a more devout cult fanbase. And it's not surprising, considering how easy it is for Tim Smith to make you fall in love with your music. It catches you and smashes on the nearest wall, and you thank Tim for that. It touches the weakest part in your body and makes you surrender immediately to its serene and divine beauty, all the while you headbang to the punky riffs of Cardiacs and shed a tear for the beautiful folky pleasure of his side project Sea Nymphs and get your mind blown from the psychedelic wonder which is Spratley's Japs. In the end you succumb to Tim's eternal genius and you kneel down and beg for another tune, another riff. Unfortunately Tim can't supply these tunes. Tim suffered a severe stroke in '08 and is bedridden and ill. This tribute album, which is very aptly titled "Leader Of The Starry Skies" comes to help raise money for Tim, whose genius is so criminally unknown that he can't get enough money to recover. Surprisingly many musicians came and volunteered to participate in this project, this single most very important charity, and the results are rather magical.

The 17 artists that are on the main disc come from a very wide range. Indie, electronica, folk, pop, punk, prog, everything. I think this the greatest thing about Tim's music. You can have hardcore progger and a sneering punk sit together and pledge their allegiance to anything that Tim Smith has created. It just goes to show that Cardiacs are not a prog band in any way shape or form, neither are they a punk band, or a folk band. They are a pop band (as Tim always said). The shiny punk shell coloured in a proggish colour holds within itself a beautiful and heart warming pop song. And that's what makes them stick. They expand their sound so much that people with a taste for them love them, but it's the beautiful pop tune inside that makes them stick so strongly to your concious and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The songs here are rather freaking wonderful. I'm not going to going into every one of them in detail but will do a track by track:

"Savour" (William D. Drake and His So Called Friends)- William D. Drake, former Cardiacs keyboard player and general genius virtuoso, supplies the first cover taken from Tim's solo album "Oceanlandworld". The track is done beautifully with a wonderful brass section opener and great vocals by Bill. Bone chillingly beautiful and emotionally powerful, Bill opens the tribute in a big way.

"Big Ship" (Ultrasound)- Indie band Ultrasound reunited to make this song, and they do a pretty spectacular job with the anthemic epicness which is "Big Ship" from Cardiacs' "Songs For Ships And Irons". Rather close to the original in delivery but still powerful and emotional.

"Fear" (Oceansize)- Recently split-up band Oceansize are the first Prog band to be featured here. They provide a cover to one of the more hauntingly beautiful songs of all time, taken from "Spratley's Japs" only album. They do a more hard rocking spacey version, which is still enormously beautiful and powerful. Definitely worth checking out by Oceansize fans.

"Let Alone My Plastic Doll" (Mark Cawthra)- This early Cardiacs track is provided by one of the first Cardiacs drummers, Mark Cawthra. The track itself was a fun and rocking affair, and Mark provides a great vocal delivery.

"Day Is Gone" (The Trudy)- I'm not a fan of pop rock band the Trudy, but their version of "Day Is Gone" off of Cardiacs' "Heaven Born And Ever Bright" was definitely enjoyable. Rather similar to the original with a great vocal delivery and nice guitar solo.

"Foundling" (Stars In Battledress)- This track is the last track from Cardiacs' "Sing To God" and is one of the most divine and magical songs in the Cardiacs catalogue, and proggy- folky-pastoral duo "Stars In Battledress" make a beautifully minimalistic and powerful performance. The vocals can give you goosebumps (good thing of course), and the instrumentation is varied and it all sounds like beauty in a box.

"Will Bleed Amen" (Max Tundra)- probably my favourite or almost favourite tribute. Max Tundra's electronic cover of one of my favourite Cardiacs tracks "Will Bleed Amen" is an absolute delight with many lines and synths running all along the tracks poking your brain every once in a while. The vocals by Sarah Measures are great and the general production and arranging of the song is just spectacular. A bucking +.

"Shaping The River" (Jullianne Regan)- singer of goth rock "All About Eve" provides a very eerie and unsettling cover of "Shaping The River" off of the Sea Nymphs eponymous and only album. Her voice is incredible and the ambient spacey feel of the song does wonders to the brainbox.

"The Stench Of Honey" (Knifeworld)- This track provided by the solo project by current Cardiacs guitarist Kavus Torabi is a completely mind blowing and exciting affair. "The Stench Of Honey" from Cardiacs' album "On Land And In the Sea" is a freaky folky experience. Kavus transfers the feeling of the song very well as well as providing his own little brass bits and metal riffs and twisted arrangements. The second prog band here provides a great ride.

"A Little Man And A House" (The Magic Numbers)- Really, unfortunately, not very good. This track (The first track from Cardiacs' "A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window") is provided by one of the more popular (commercially) bands on this tribute, indie band The Magic Numbers. Goes on for too long, bad vocals, rather awkward sounding deliveries and arrangements. Unfortunate and usually skipped by your's truly.

"Is This The Life?" (mikrokosmos)- The original song is probably Cardiacs' biggest... hit sort of. mikrokosmos is a solo project manned by former Cardiacs guitarist Christian Hayes. Bic's (nickname) electronic ambient version is chilling and rather empowering and manages to grab you for the whole 6 minutes.

"March" (North Sea Radio Orchestra)- This is also one of my favourites off the album. Chamber-pop-rock-bitavant-folk ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra bring us an absolutely delightful version of "March" off "Heaven Born And Ever Bright". Great and quirky instrumentation with a beautiful string section and drop dead gorgeous vocals provide a cover, which I probably shouldn't be saying, is probably better than the original.

"Lily White's Party" (Robert White (you're thinking of Wyatt) feat. Andy Partridge)- My favourite track off of the Sea Nymphs album is given a great cover by Robert White. Also rather similar to the original, great but goes on for a bit too long.

"Wind And Rain Is Cold" (Rose Kemp Vs. Rarg)- I don't know who Rarg is, but freaky indie act Rose Kemp probably gets the prize for best cover on the album. Her cover of lovely pop song "Wind And Rain Is Cold" off of "Guns", is an ever-shifting, creepy, delightful, and utterly progressive affair. Her vocals are really deep and glorious, and the electronic bits are wonderfully added and make the song feel a hell of lot weirder.

"Up In Annie's Room" (Katharine Blake)- The song with probably Tim Smith's greatest lyrics, "Up In Annie's Room" is given a short and powerful A Capella cover by singer Katharine Blake who is known as being one of the singers from vocal group "Medieval Babes" (stupid name...). The vocal layers are great and the song is beautiful.

"Stoneage Dinosaur" (Steven Wilson)- Probably the most well known musician here, leader of Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson provides a cover for one of the few Cardiacs sorta ballads "Stoneage Dinosaur" off of "Songs For Ships And Irons". I'm not a fan of most of PT's work and most of Steven Wilson's work, but damn he does a great job here. The many keyboards and synths provide a powerful and emotional cover. His vocals are great, and the minimalistic drums compliment the song perfectly.

"Home Of Fadeless Splendour" (The Scramanga Six)- There are currently five people in the Scramange Six, and for that they should be hanged! A Pop-Cardiacs influenced group, the Scramanga Six provide the last song on the album, which is the first song from "Heaven Born And Ever Bright". Let me say this in caps lock: THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND MAGICAL SONG YOU WILL EVER LISTEN TO. Well at least if you're a Cardiacs fan. The beginning always gives me severe goosebumps, and the songs builds up to a wonderful crescendo which is inspirational and the vocals are so passionate and real and the playing just screams at you "I love this band and this song" and you can feel the general celebration Cardiacs are. THANK YOU SCRAMANGA SIX FOR THIS DIVINE EXPERIENCE.

This album is a very important and fun treasure for Cardiacs fans and is not a bad entrance for people yet unaware of the Genius with a capital G that Tim Smith is. Buy this album just for Tim, you don't have to listen to it if you really don't want to. 4.5 stars for the music and 5 stars for the cause. This is essential for everyone, and especially for Tim!

Tim, get well for all the fishes in the pond, and I sure as hell hope this album helps you get better!!!!!!!

Report this review (#463594)
Posted Saturday, June 18, 2011 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JR/F/Canterbury & Eclectic Teams
4 stars TIM SMITH ( 3 July 1961 - 21 July 2020 ) was without doubt one of the most respected musicians of the art rock world to emerge in the last 50 years with his unique mix of psychedelic pop, progressive rock and post-punk with the Cardiacs as well as the lesser known acts The Sea Nymphs, Spratley Japs and Panixphere. Add to that a short stint in Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake as well as a solo album titled "Tim Smith's Extra Special OceanLandWorld." The man is considered a true genius in the world of pronk (prog x punk) for the innovative songwriting techniques employed on the Cardiacs albums that began under the moniker Cardiac Arrest. Albums like "A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window" and "On Land and in the Sea" are considered by many including myself to be absolute masterpieces of indie DIY art rock that please punk rockers and hardened proggers alike. No easy feat there.

In response to TIM SMITH's combo heart attack and stroke that took place in 2008 and landed him in a London hospital, the compilation LEADER OF THE STARRY SKIES: A TRIBUTE TO TIM SMITH, SONGBOOK 1 was created by a long list of artists who either stated a strong Cardiacs influence or an above average admiration in SMITH's musical heritage including a few musicians who worked with the Cardiacs directly. This album of 17 tracks was released to raise funds for his ongoing care and recovery which also signified how a given artist can be extremely loved in the underground world of music but still reaped very few financial rewards from his / her contributions to the said underground. While the album was released in 2010 and is still available, the original preorder edition offered a 14-track bonus disc titled "A Loyal Companion." Unfortunately there are few samples of this bonus disc so i can only review the one album that clocks in at 73:47 and features popular artists such as Steven Wilson, Oceansize, North Sea Orchestra and Knifeworld covering their favorite TIM SMITH tunes.

This album is the ultimate tribute to a most respected musician in need and not only consists of Cardiacs covers but songs sampled from all of SMITH's projects. "Savour" by former Cardiacs member William D. Drake starts the compilation off and was lifted from SMITH's solo album. Other artists involved in this project include The Magic Numbers covering "A Little Man And A House," Robert White of The Milk And Honey Band with Andy Partridge of XTC covering "Lillywhite's Party" and the Britpop band Ultrasound covering "Big Ship" which reunited specifically to record this one track. Despite the unique idiosyncrasies that TIM SMITH employed to make his music sound like no other, the artists involved in this project, while staying true to the original intent of the music, manage to add their own stamp on these tracks which makes this an unexpected pleasure as i rarely find tribute albums to be worthy of exploration however TIM SMITH evoked something beyond the average musician and clearly garnered nothing but pure respect from the various alternative oriented musicians who followed in his footsteps.

While none of the tracks on LEADER OF THE STARRY SKIES: A TRIBUTE TO TIM SMITH, SONGBOOK 1 eclipse the original recordings, this compilation of TIM SMITH songs is the ultimate tribute to one of the world's greatest songwriters and will be most revered by punk rockers and proggers alike. Despite the album emerging ten years ago in response to SMITH's medical needs, it is more than fitting to finally check out this fine compilation of underground indie artists to celebrate the life of one of the most unique singer / songwriter / guitarists of all time. TIM SMITH was lucky enough to survive another decade but finally left this crazy world at the age of 59 on the 21st of July, 2020 following another heart attack. All i can say is?. THANK YOU, TIM SMITH FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE WORLD OF UNDERGROUND MUSIC! You are truly a hero in my book and deserve a respite from this tumultuous and messed up planet we call home. Your music will live on forever and your legend will only grow. R.I.P, dude!

Report this review (#2453745)
Posted Sunday, October 4, 2020 | Review Permalink

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