There was a time when having listened to any tracks from the Goldcard sessions would constitute a status symbol, an instant induction into an elite band of indie aficionados and fashionable trend-setters. In this regard, the eventual mainstream release of Goldcard can almost feel like a letdown, dispelling some of the mystique surrounding the long unfinished album.
This isn't to say that upon its decade-delayed release Goldcard became a commercial blockbuster. On the contrary, the album remains an obscure chapter in the modern indie mythos. Nevertheless, there was a time when the only way to hear anything from the Goldcard sessions was to happen upon one of the few copies circulating through hip parties and underground clubs. Thus the demos were consigned to a virtual anonymity that seemed to be their irrevocable fate, with any thoughts of a full album version amounting to little more than a pipedream.
Charlie Cambell, the principal member of the indie pop outfit Pond, wrote and produced the original cuts of Goldcard's tracks in the mid-nineties. Subsequently, for some inexplicable reason, Cambell shelved the songs, with no intention of ever releasing them to the public.
Fortunately, the aforementioned demos created enough of a stir that a healthy level of public interest was cultivated. This interest was more akin to curiosity than a major demand for the content, but it was enough to inspire Cambell's friends and colleagues from groups like Grandaddy, Quasi and his own Pond to prevail upon him to finally complete Goldcard and release it as the full-fledged album it had always deserved to be.
Thus in 2003, about a decade late, Goldcard was finally finished and released to the record-buying public. Given the homebrewed quality that permeates the album, it's doubtful that Cambell made any drastic studio overhauls to the final product. It's clear that Cambell wanted to be faithful to his original artistic vision, and thus considerations like creative maturation in the intervening years or a desire to make a more lucrative album were dismissed from the get-go.
While Cambell wanted to maintain the feel of the demos, this didn't stop him from accepting the help of myriad musicians from groups like the aforementioned Grandaddy and Quasi. The overall ensemble are billed simply as Goldcard, an appropriate decision given that the collective existed solely to produce this one solitary album.
Critics tend to cite certain artists as influences upon Cambell on this album. The Beach Boys comparison is transparent, as one of Goldcard's greatest assets is their lush harmonies.
Other notable comparisons, principally to Syd Barrett, are understandable, if a tad misguided. While Cambell certainly turns in a rather unique showing, as both a songwriter and performer, his eccentricity is rather far removed from Barrett's psychosis. While Barrett's mania has a certain playful, inviting feel, Cambell's oddness can be distancing, making his work feel detached and impersonal. Furthermore, Barrett's dementia always feels loose and spontaneous, casting Cambell's more structured approach as comparatively forced and calculated.
Cambell's eccentricity isn't born from fairytales or childlike wonder but rather a relatively mundane merger of melancholy and neurosis, and never once does he come across as unhinged or out of control. His music feels like real music, not the soundtrack of a sweetly twisted mind.
These aren't complaints, merely ways to illustrate the disparities between Barrett and Cambell. Cambell is forced to rely far more on his melodic skills than Barrett, who could often simply coast off his ever-compelling, arresting persona. Barrett's mind was fascinating, while Cambell, odd as he may be, isn't odd in a way that differentiates him from legions of other depressed or neurotic rock artists.
Fortunately for Goldcard, Cambell is quite an accomplished songwriter, and this is reflected throughout the album. As far as his idiosyncrasies are concerned, they're most evident during the untitled instrumental segues that connect many songs on the album. Invariably they prove to be just as rewarding as the material proper, as Cambell demonstrates a flair for creative arrangements, all of which are deftly implemented by his Goldcard collaborators.
As far as the more 'traditional' songs are concerned, there are admittedly a few misfires, like the intentionally atonal, criminally lo-fi and badly mixed Birthday. It's not that the track lacks polish, as that's a wrongheaded complaint that could be leveraged against any song on the album. The album revels in its homemade charm, and this gleeful under-produced feel is one of the greatest assets of the album. On Birthday, however, Cambell grows too self-indulgent, and worse still is the fact that even with the aurally-destructive production the track lacks much musical substance to begin with.
Luckily the album has its share of highlights as well. We Only Doubt Which Theory We Will Be Proving First is the first proper song on the album, and it makes a terrific first impression with its pretty harmonies and plaintive vocals. Rabbit, on the other hand, almost sounds like Death Cab For Cutie in its opening moments, before going off in another direction altogether.
Aside from Birthday, Goldcard is quite a consistent album, succeeding more due to Cambell's normal side than his odd one. The songs and instrumentals all bespeak a measure of order and discipline in their construction, very much the product of a mind not only in tune with itself but with its bandmates as well. While Cambell may lack a hook like the colorful vibrancy of Barrett, he makes up for it with a solid gift for songwriting, and that's certainly not something to be scoffed at.