Review: Leader of the Starry Skies, a Tribute to Tim Smith

“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?

2 Responses to “Review: Leader of the Starry Skies, a Tribute to Tim Smith”
  1. Snardbafulator says:

    Spiffy job there. I’d have to concur with your shout-out paragraph, but also add props for “Home of Fadeless Splendor” and the Peter Hamill-like vocal intensity that The Scaramanga Six bring into the song as it builds. I don’t know the original of “Fear,” but I’m loving this song’s kiltering chord changes and wondering what sort of contribution Mr. Bungle could’ve made had they been still around. Big Ship is big and sturdy and built to last though all weathers, and Ultrasound do a shout-worthy rendition, with excellent vocals, pronky dissonant stabs and a true feel for the song’s passionate buildups and the-mother-of-all-Cardiacs-sing-along-chorus. Truly Stars In Battledress’s “Foundling” rates a shouty-shout for their wonderfully-sung and melody-enhancing arrangement.

    Criticisms I have a few (always do, even of my most favorite stuff) but somehow this time and place don’t seem right for them just yet. All in all a fantastic disc that wears its love not merely on the sleeve, but within the music.


  2. thehemulen says:

    Oh I’m with you on all of those, Bob. There are really very very few tracks on either disc which I’d consider weak, and even they’re just relative to the overall quality, which is much higher than I think any of us anticipated!

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