‘On Dry Land’
Alphabet Business Concern
From the ground and in the air…everything is easy.
Well not exactly. Some things are downright tricky, and it’s fair to say that Sea Nymphs’ second album has made its way into existence via a somewhat tortuous but nonetheless rewarding route.
Sea Nymphs were/are an offshoot of the wondrous and sometimes baffling punk/pop/prog/kitchen-sink band Cardiacs. The world of Cardiacs can, to the outsider, seem a little daunting. The in-joke chanting at gigs, the symbolism, the ever so slightly intimidating stage presence; it can all be like being presented with a cult to the uninitiated. Then, there’s the music. First impressions can lead to the conclusion that it barely makes sense. There are ridiculous time changes and key changes, wonky little fiddly bits and heaps of ungodly noise. After a little time and immersion something will click and everything becomes blindingly clear or a strong antipathy will arise. It’s a love/hate thing, there is no middle ground.
Except, maybe there is, the works of Tim Smith were not merely confined to Cardiacs output. There was his wonderful solo album Oceanlandworld, and then there was The Sea Nymphs, a project with Cardiacs cohorts William D Drake and Sarah Smith. Whilst there could be some delightfully gentle and beautiful moments in Cardiacs songs, they’d usually be surrounded by carefully crafted chaos (if such a thing can actually exist). Sea Nymphs comes from a different place altogether. The Big Ship might have been sailing on the high seas where the wind and rains is cold, but under the surface, in the depths, there was something far more quaint occurring.
The original Sea Nymphs album appeared back in 1992 and the trio created a series of creaky yet catchy shanties that were far more delicate than perhaps might have been expected. For those put off by Cardiacs’ usual output, Sea Nymphs offered a new way into their world. Drawing on folk and pastoral classical music, Sea Nymphs were still a strange proposition, but they were dreamy, sprite like and utterly charming.
Their second album had been recorded around the same time as the first, but for some reason best known to themselves it has taken until now to see the light of day. Its appearance now is worthy of celebration. Firstly, it is always a pleasure to hear new material from any Cardiacs related project. Secondly, it sees the return of Tim Smith to the creative arena since becoming unwell in 2008. Over the last year he has taken to the studio in order to add the finishing touches to the album, and the notion of his return to music in any form is something to be cherished.
As might be expected, this album occupies a similar sonic space to its predecessor. Whilst the title suggests that the band is resting their seafaring legs for a while, the call of the sea is strong and there is still that strange sense of oceanic depth and mystery that pervades almost every song.
The opening seconds of After set the tone for what is to come. Sarah’s altered vocals hang spirit like, fading in and out over delicate tinkling chimes. It’s almost impossible to grasp such is its barely there nature. Eating A Heart Out is a little easier to grasp, but retains a soft-focus feel. Like a naïve nursery rhyme, there’s a beguiling innocence to it that would break the heart of even the sturdiest (which would make it easier to eat). Big River, effectively an acoustic guitar and vocal performance from Tim is more straightforward, it’s a stark reminder of his ability to draw emotion from even the sparsest arrangements. Sea Snake Beware meanwhile finds William D Drake taking the lead with his piano and vocals and it sounds very much like his own solo work: dainty, precise, and surprisingly complex by the close.
The first four songs might represent the individuals and their nuances, but Sea Nymphs most definitely operate as a band within the band as can be seen on the likes of the jaunty folk of Cut Yourself Kidding or the sci-fi tinged meanderings of Bye Bye Spirit. It’s on The Black Blooded Clam that things really come together however. Its chaotic structure, classical motifs, and slanted whimsy are absolutely perfect. Sounding like a scuttling mouse trapped within a wicker man, there’s a slightly sinister side to it.
As the album draws to a close, there are a couple of songs that might have found their way onto a Cardiacs album. That’s not to say that they don’t fit into the Sea Nymphs’ ethereal oeuvre, but it’s possible to imagine The Sea Ritual finding its way onto On Land In The Sea as elements of it sound not unlike The Everso Closely Guarded Line. Similarly,Liberated And Handsome’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interjection could easily have nestled in the behemoth that was Sing To God.
This then is a welcome return to the vaults and an absolute gem of a record whose depths and delights deserve to be heard. It is encouraging to see the wheels turning in the Cardiacs camp again.