June 1998 – EP reviews – The Sea Nymphs’ ‘Appealing to Venus’ (“(they) sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers”)

3 Jun

The Sea Nymphs: 'Appealing to Venus' EP

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP

There’s something about the ‘Appealing to Venus’ EP which sounds incredibly ancient. Not dated, as such – for all its leanings towards progginess, it’s nothing passe or stilted, and any awkwardness is an integral part of the charm. No, it’s the murky timelessness and pre-tech fragility of the songs. It’s music in the trembling, bewildered nude; emerging from its shell of strength to blink in the light. To voice, in a halting manner, its own concerns, as the bright lights and brash neon of the pop scene whirl around it, uncomprehending.

Not that it’s come from nowhere. The Sea Nymphs are an (almost) acoustic alter-ego for the manically electric and intense Cardiacs: a mass of scrawny acoustic guitars, ‘Rock Bottom’ harmoniums, mellotrons and melodicas, baroque Black Death keyboards, crumhorn saxes and touchingly scratchy singing. Cardiacs’ convoluted songs have always had threads of Early Music woven into them. With The Sea Nymphs, we get to wind back along those threads and see where they lead.


 
These four tracks (salvaged from the Nymphs’ criminally ignored debut album) exorcise, or exercise, Cardiacs’ curiosity about pre-pop. You can hear old folk melodies seeping into Low Church music, shreds of sea-shanties and work-song, ramshackle European fragments existing independently of the blues or classical traditions… the bits that pop forgot, in other words. Though compared to, say, Dead Can Dance’s lordly, haughty take on Early Music, The Sea Nymphs sound as if they’ve crawled their ungainly way out of a Vincent Ward peasant odyssey of quivering, shipwrecked dreams and prayers.


 
Listening to the reedy, march-y slog of careening organs, plodding piano and parping synth on the title track, you hear a heartbreakingly wistful devotion. In the giant cathedral boom of Up in Annie’s Room, string synths smear the shuddering air around Tim’s cracked, lost, voice, swallowing it up in a churchy swamp of sound. He sounds as if he’s trying to outshout a God who’s cold and indifference to his vulnerable defiance. The mediaeval shawm-sneeze of God’s Box – fifty people on comb, paper and bells – seems lighter, The Sea Nymphs – flotsam and jetsam but its skipping ward against evil (“God’s good, the Devil is bad – he always gives me money,”) sounds ambiguous in Sarah’s blank, gauzy, little-girl vocals. “Never Setting Things on Fire, / never bad,” she sings, as if considering her options.


 
It’s left to the exquisite Shaping the River (in which a lilting falsetto choir sways, shanty-like, behind watery spangles of piano) to bring us something to warm our bared hearts. A work-song, something shared; a relationship with nature even as you alter it: “River in the middle of / Nowhere / Three of us suck on its heart, / and its head. / …Plant the heart, all from the heart / … only in the heart.”


 
The skeletal bonus tracks – lifted from even older tapes by Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake (the prototype Nymphs) – pull us further into blurry pasts. There’s Bill’s gentle, bemused Camouflage, a twelve-tone sprig on Syd Barrett’s nursery-rhyme legacy. The meandering but intensely purposeful tone poem Little Creations clambers like a drunken squirrel from branch to branch, complete with manuscript rustling and equipment fumbling. Hymn rounds everything off; a live bootleg of Tim blinking over an austere organ sound, a pagan taking his first faltering steps into the chapel. These songs, too, have that unnervingly ancient-but-ageless quality; the same indefinable, painful, yet suspect innocence that haunts the songs of Robert Wyatt or Elizabeth Fraser.



 
Which all means that The Sea Nymphs are both as frail and damp as a newborn, and as old as the hills. Just listening to them pulls you back that much closer to the original greenwood, little shoots cracking their way out of your hidden memories.

The Sea Nymphs: ‘Appealing to Venus’
Org Records Ltd., ORGAN 044CD (5 028151 010445)
CD-only EP
Released:
1st June 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand. Appealing to Venus, God’s Box, Up in Annie’sRoom and Shaping the River all appear on the eponymous debut album by The Sea Nymphs (available as a download from The Alphabet Business Concern), while Little Creations and Camouflage appear on the lone eponymous album by Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr Drake. Hymn is in fact a Cardiacs song used as an early 1980s set closer: the version here was recorded at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival and appears nowhere else apart from on bootlegs.
The Sea Nymphs (Cardiacs) online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Amazon Music
 

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