Listen while you read!
One of the wonders of recorded music is that, barring some unfortunate disaster or disappearance, the recordings can stay with us regardless of what happens to the bands and individuals that make the recordings. Hypothetically, there are millions of hidden gems out there, buried in history, biding their time, just waiting to be discovered by receptive ears. Sardina’s sole album Presents is definitely one of those gems.
This Bloomington/Indianapolis quartet, consisting of PJ Christie, LonPaul Ellrich, Michelle Marchessault, and Marty Green, quickly found themselves evolving from a group of friends playing absurdist rock for fun into Indiana cult-heroes, leaving an indelible mark on the regional music scene in the early- to mid-nineties. In addition, their recorded output (including some surprisingly high-quality live recordings) still earns them a slow trickle of enthusiastic adoration in the internet age. Released in 1995 on Hit It Recordings, Presents is the product of four young, strong-willed, creative minds melding together to create some truly singular indie-pop tunes that still sound incredible and retain their near-timeless quality over 15 years later. Like the best indie rock albums, it sounds quite unlike anything else, but it is also vaguely familiar and totally approachable.
Listening to Sardina’s music all these years later, one could easily imagine the band breaking out nationally and stealing some of the spotlight from the far less-interesting bands that made it onto the radio and MTV at the time. Presents has it all: radio-friendly pop choruses; odd-ball, Pixies-esque shouting; eclectic instrumentation flying in from left-field at the least predictable moments; laid-back, pretty songs that evoke the most gentle Yo La Tengo offerings; brilliant hooks and long instrumental passages side-by-side; even some memorable, Elephant 6-style twee-pop melodies. Songs like “The Formula” show how much fun Sardina could have musically while really hashing out some complicated emotions, and the back-to-back duo “Hey” and “Travel and Tourism” are a perfect example of the range and poignancy of Marchessault’s vocals. The Ellrich-penned “He’s On Drugs Again” runs the gamut from heart-aching beauty to fist-pumping anthem and back again before devolving into a bizarre, tuneless jam - it’s the kind of song that every band dreams of writing, but Sardina make it seem almost effortless. Album closer, “Messy Moe” is melancholy, catchy, and ethereal, predating the sound of bands like the Shins by a few years. Some moments of the album drift into more typical “alternative rock” territory, which can sound a bit dated, but it remains apparent throughout that this was a band making a new breed of pop music, strictly on their own terms.
According to an excellent description of the recording process for Presents, written by PJ Christie in 2007, Sardina had already begun to splinter by the time the album made it to music store shelves. Green quit shortly prior to the album’s release, while the remaining members continued to play live with replacement guitarists, including Greg Backus, Bill Cameron, and Fred Goldfine. This post-Presents period contains some of Sardina’s best work, but as the band never recorded a follow-up album, these songs can only be heard on live recordings (available here at MFT). These recordings hint at a new direction for the band just as they prepared to call it quits. LonPaul Ellrich’s songs “Purple Master” and “Jealous Frog” are remarkable for their elegant, moody sound and smart, expressive lyrics. Ellrich, who passed away in 2008, is also known for his contributions to Marmoset and the Mysteries of Life, but the material he wrote for Sardina, especially these later songs, stands out as something entirely different and visionary. Although Sardina’s reign was brief, their influence is heard not only in the bands with whom they shared members over the years, but also in the current crop of Indiana indie-poppers, whose enthusiasm for the underrated regional bands of old is lovingly preserved in recorded form, ensuring a longer lineage and brighter future for those music fans who cherish the recordings that history has left us.