Cardinal once was a big fish in a small corner of the indie-rock pond, thanks to Richard Davies and Eric Matthews being pegged as innovators of modern-day orch-pop. The group’s 1994 debut received the kind of reverential accolades—from, among others, The Flaming Lips, who later acted as Davies’ backing band—that would make many artists just want to leave well enough alone. Davies and Matthews, who parted ways in the mid-’90s to explore uneven solo careers, also didn’t get along, and their improbable reunion seemed doomed a few years ago when the old artistic struggles that originally blew the project up once again derailed their plans.
But now Cardinal’s sophomore effort Hymns has finally arrived, and, despite being separated by both time and space—the Australian-born Davies is based in Cape Cod, while Matthews lives outside Portland, Oregon—it complements its predecessor with flavorful horns, harpsichord, and well-honed retro-pop songs, which easily bring to mind ’60s staples like The Beatles, the Bee Gees, and Love. Since he’s the primary songwriter, Davies is also the primary singer, but his nasally delivery is always improved when accompanied by Matthews’ deep croon, and the two match up exquisitely on songs like the shimmery opener “Northern Soul.” Cardinal’s generally gentle temperament is occasionally interrupted by some edgier moments, such as the rocked-out “Love Like Rain” and “Carbolic Smoke Ball,” which was written by Davies—who’s now a practicing attorney—about the first law case he read.
Still, Hymns is a good, but not great, album. The strength of Cardinal was in its presentation, not necessarily in the writing, and as a result it was full of more promise than pop perfection. Hymns plays out similarly, with Davies and Matthews once again making an enjoyable record that lacks substance.