So, from Estonia to Finland, then. Admittedly, it’s not that much of a leap, geographically speaking, but the gap between Possimiste and Cats On Fire is, shall we say, significant – not simply in terms of style, but in identity. While Possimiste finds herself in a place where she could go in any of a thousand directions (and that is an exciting prospect to someone like me), Cats On Fire have been around a while, as documented on their 2010 release, Dealing In Antiques, a collection of B-sides and rarities. And though they’ve been through some growing pains and lineup changes along the way, Cats On Fire (frontman and mastermind, Mattias Björkas, in particular) have carved out a nice niche for themselves in the world of indiepop.
And here, with All Blackshirts To Me (Matinée Recordings), Björkas and the rekindled Cats On Fire are back with their third proper LP, and the most ambitious to date. I remember describing the band’s 2009 LP, Our Temperance Movement, to someone as “a happy version of the Smiths”. And, while I can now safely say that, in those days, I really had no idea what I was talking about, it’s fair to say now that, even had such a description been 100% accurate at the time, such an easy out is no longer justifiable. Sure, the mark of the Smiths is still there, but not to the degree it is in, say, unapologetically jangly Danish labelmates, Northern Portrait.
What we get with All Blackshirts To Me, from the opening singable strains of “Our Old Centre Back” to the hymn-like benediction of “Finnish Lace” is an album which, you might say, occupies more aural space than the band’s previous releases. While “1914 and Beyond”, for instance, is a striking piano-driven history of European affairs, it is followed by a pair of tracks with strong female harmonies—“Well What Do You Know” with its strong singalong chorus, and the jaunty, jangly, and contemptuous “Smash It To Pieces”. And just try to listen to lead single “My Sense of Pride” without a little shuffle creeping into your step.
The new addition of occasional synthesizers and some ambient sounds scattered about here and there, it’s clear that Cats On Fire are not afraid to venture into new territory. And, though a little room to grow is often too much to ask of the most narrow-minded fans, Björkas has earned that privilege and put it to good use here. With dancing melodies, some well-bred earworms, and even a dash of Spanish Flu, All Blackshirts To Me is probably the band’s most ambitious project to date. But, thanks to Björkas’s seasoned songwriting and the band’s deft execution, it is also probably their best.
All Blackshirts To Me is available on CD now from Matinée Recordings.