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.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard anything from Seattle’s Math and Physics Club (well, technically not for me since I first heard them just as I was getting involved in this blogging racket about 15 months ago). But it’s been three years since the release of the band’s last EP, Baby I’m Yours. So, for the collective “we”, I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do is another bright spot in a year that is producing no shortage of indie pop magic. Then again, what else do you expect from Matinée Recordings?
From the opening bars of “Jimmy had a Polaroid” (also the first single off the album), the boys staked their claim to a permanent spot in my amorphous summer road-trip rotation, further cementing their position with the singable shuffle of “We Make a Pair”. Frequently, I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do finds Charles Bert’s vocals reminiscent of the tonal clarity of Sondre Lerche, especially on tracks like the sparkling “Will You Still Love Me” (alongside Jen Garrett [Stuporville]) and the traipsing theatrics of “Everybody Loves a Showtune” (which could easily be mistaken for a lost New Vaudeville Band B-side).
And of course I have to mention the closer “We’re So DIY”, which I am unofficially adopting as our official theme song. Check us out selling records in the back. / Hand-designed custom jacket with a badge. / We’ll never carry up the charts / but we’ll be the indie stars / that everybody hearts. / We’re so DIY! I couldn’t have said it better myself (in fact, I am half tempted to replace the “About Us” page with the lyrics to this song). It is clear from this album that Math and Physics Club know the way to an indie kid’s heart and, for the rest of the general public who don’t already, they’ve provided a road map. The whole trip will take about 25 minutes.
Also from Matinée this month is Dealing In Antiques, a 20-track collection of EPs, B-sides, and new recordings by Finland’s Cats On Fire. Dealing In Antiques is essential for anyone who loves good pop music, Scandinavia, or the lingering ghost of the Smiths. Oh, by the way, most of the EPs these tracks are taken from are sold-out, so this is the only way you’re going to hear them. So, buy it. It’s 20 tracks and a brilliant investment, at least it is if you’re sort of person who likes the sort of music that you can enjoy. It’s provided hours of entertainment for me since I first listened to it last week—that is, when I haven’t been busy reveling in Math and Physics Club (see above).
10. Rockwell, Anni Rossi (4AD) – If you caught Camera Obscura on their US tour this summer, you now have a better idea just what one girl and her viola are capable of, but I saw Anni twice this year, and I still can’t believe it.
9. Actor, St. Vincent (4AD) – Though my review of this album for a certain e-zine was “improved” by some hack of an editor who considered my avoidance of clichés downright unpalatable, Annie Clark remains one of the great musical geniuses at work these days.
8. The Big Machine, Emilie Simon (Barclay/Universal) – It’s a departure from her last (and my favorite) album, Végétal, but this, the first of what you might call Emilie’s “American” recordings, proves that a creative powerhouse starting anew is still better than any number of pop idols doing what they do best. [interview]
7. Uam, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine/Cadiz) – I hesitated to include this since none of the songs on this album were even written in this century, but few (if any) have done more to make one of the world’s great musical traditions relevant again than Ms. Fowlis. That combined with impeccable musicianship and a killer set of tunes spanning several centuries are enough to obliterate my reticence.
6. Pays Sauvage, Emily Loizeau (Polydor) – On her sophomore release, Emily Loizeau copes with, among other things, the loss of her father. In the process, she will tear your heart to shreds – and you will never again be more happy to be heartbroken. If you had told me a year ago that a French woman would prove this year to have a better grasp of American roots music and slave songs than almost anyone I’ve heard in recent memory, I’d have written you off as a complete nutjob (no offense).
5. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD) – Apparently, it’s been a good year for 4AD. “French Navy” is probably the catchiest song by a band I like that your average Starbucks customer may have actually heard this year. Still, I think “Honey in the Sun” is my favorite from the second Scottish act on this list.
4. Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors (Domino) – The only album on this list that I do not actually own and I am ashamed. Even worse, I missed their Columbus show this year because I suck. I streamed this about 3,487 times when it was streaming on the NPR website. Holy crap, it’s brilliant.
3. Lungs, Florence + the Machine (Universal Republic/Island) – You Brits have been hearing about Florence Welch for ages now, but I guess Paste hasn’t given the American indie subculture permission to trade in their Grizzly Bear CDs for one of the most monumental voices of the decade yet, not to mention the super sexy percussion. But her time will come, kids. Now is your chance to get in on the ground floor. I suspect that, if I’d had more than two months with this album before writing this, Florence + the Machine would be finishing even higher on this list.
2. A Balloon Called Moaning/First You Have to Get Mad, The Joy Formidable (self-released) – If you have not heard of The Joy Formidable by now, you a) live outside of the UK and/or b) do not read this blog enough. Technically, these are two albums, one studio and one live and there is a lot of overlap between them. But together, they prove two things conclusively: The Joy Formidable are the best unsigned band in the world (yes, I said it); and they are the band to watch in 2010. If you don’t already own these albums, ask yourself why and the go out and buy them. Then, when they play their three shows in NYC with Passion Pit in January and all those cool Brooklyn kids think they’ve discovered something groundbreaking, you can (gently) remind them that you and some unenlightened hick from the Midwest got there a year before them.
1. The Love Language, The Love Language (Bladen County) – This album took 150% more turns in my car stereo than any other album released in 2009. That fact alone made my album of the year decision an easy one. (Not a bad accomplishment for one guy sitting alone in his bedroom.) Then there is the fact that the live incarnation of The Love Language, which is considerably larger, put on what is, at the very least, the second best show I saw this year (Los Campesinos are pretty phenomenal in their own right). I am speechless just thinking about it, so go back and read what I wrote after that show, if you’re interested. And, Stuart McLamb, if you’re reading this, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for this record. I hope I won’t have to wait too long for a second one.
Honorable Mentions: Welcome to the Walk Alone, The Rumble Strips (Island); God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade/Matador)
I can hardly stop beating myself up enough to post tonight, but I guess if I’m going to be listening to something when I’m this filled with self-hatred, it might as well be Cats on Fire, because not only do they have a nice, destructive name, but they are also just the right amount of upbeat with a good dose of cynical reality.
I’ve been listening to Cats on Fire for a couple of weeks now, and I love them, but I’ve been at a loss as to what to say about them. When Eric introduced them to me, he labelled them as kind of a happy version of the Smiths, which I definitely agree with, but then today we had a conversation about how they sound so familiar (to me) and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. We nixed Belle & Sebastian (any of it) today. The Magnetic Fields? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s the vocals? It will continue to drive me crazy until I die. I must accept that they have a unique sound that is comforting in its familiarity…although the reason it is familiar is…just one of their mysteriously special qualities…
I’m full of shit. Anyway, Cats on Fire has released a few things–singles, EP’s, CD’s, blah blah, but right now I am listening to and talking about Our Temperance Movement. They are from Finland but Matinee Recordings released it in the US in April, and its track listing is different than it is in the UK, which is odd (to me) but cool. In a very weird and “I’m still full of shit” sort of way, what I like about Cats on Fire’s (Cats’ on Fire? The eternal question of who possesses…) sound is similar to what I like about The New Pornographers’ (The New’s Pornographers) sound, which comes down to line and layers for me; it’s something about how the lyrical lines are backed by long phrases, creating an awesome backdrop of sound. This might sound crazy, but I don’t really care. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Cats on Fire really sound(s) like The New Pornographers. ANYWAY MOVING ON.
I think the line is also what gives the album such a great flow. Each song is both its own entity and part of the bigger picture of the album, which may seem obvious, but also there are a lot of artists who don’t try to achieve this, or who try and fail. This is why the concept of “the album” is dead.* Discuss. Every song I’m like, ohh this is probably one of my favorites! But then I change my mind as soon as I start the next song. Then I start the CD over again and the process begins once more. They do tender, melancholy, and melodic beautifully (“Our Days in the Sun,” “Never Sell the House”), and they do a bit more upbeat and driving fantastically as well (“Lay Down Your Arms,” “Tears in Your Cup”). You can’t get a better blend. It’s like damn good coffee.
Lyrically, Cats on Fire are witty and precious, my two favorite things about people and bands. Take, for instance, “Never Sell the House”: the man you danced with was most certainly too old/he wouldn’t tell but i think the stale (?) smell gave away/come dementia you’d be kicking yourself/so let go. God forbid we be kicking ourselves come dementia. Or: come on and meet me when i come home/without you even askin i’ll shovel all the snow/and you’ll never sell the house/we’ll always have our own room. Both witty and precious in one song.
They also give good advice, for instance, too much adultery just poisons your mind. That was “Letters from a Voyage to Sweden.” Good thing to remember.
Anyway, I hope you love Cats on Fire as much as I do, and I hope you buy their album because it is really quite wonderful and you will not be disappointed, especially if you are a fan of the Smiths or Belle & Sebastian or The New Pornographers or the Magnetic Fields, or really anyone with talent, and especially if you are not sure how to do plurals or whether to capitalize the “the” in front of band names.