All Blackshirts To Me – Cats on Fire, rekindled

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.


I need something small, I need a room without a view

by Jens Zietlow, on a relatively famous backyard in Hamburg
by Jens Zietlow, on a relatively famous backyard in Hamburg

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.

*I do not really think “the album” is dead.