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Richard Davies, who as half of genius duo Cardinal produced an LP of orchestrated pop that was a cult hit in ’94, emerges in 1996 with an album under his own name. Built around Davies’ vocals, Crowd displays the Australian’s broad and natural-sounding range of inflection and deft use of imagery, occasionally recalling Hunky Dory-era David Bowie. A skilled outfit of session musicians creates a sparse yet textured backdrop, coloring Davies’ precious rhymes with acoustic guitar, piano, and live-sounding drums (Davies highlights his singing against the restrained accompaniment rather than submerging it in a moody rumble à la Tindersticks). He says he wanted to “let people hear how I write a song,” so the arrangements often focus on his voice and the instrument—either guitar or piano—he used in composition. Davies prefers to puzzle the listener rather than spell out his emotional state. On “Chips Rafferty,” Davies identifies with a 1940s Australian movie actor and his self-imposed exile in the States. One can hear traces of Arthur Lee, New Zealand’s Flying Nun underground (which inspired Davies’ former outfit, the Moles), and the Kinks, but “6/4 On” is distinctively Davies. His piano playfully alternates simple half-note rapping with fanfare and frills, which are complex, directionless, and abstract, but elegant. As the record unfolds, Davies moves from more traditional pop songs to abstract pieces that resemble arty, disjointed cutups. “Showtime,” a sparse piano and vocal section set against a horn solo, closes what by the 10th tune has revealed itself as a challenging yet accessible album.

—John Dugan