Album of the Week: Two Shoes, The Cat Empire

Cat-Empire_Two-ShoesThere’s two sides to this album. I know that sounds a little obvious, but that’s not really what I mean. Yes, there’s an A-side and a B-side, but there’s also two currents at work throughout the whole recording.

Two Shoes is both an accessible album of fun, upbeat songs and a display of intensely literate musicianship with a remarkable variety of influences. It’s this duality, this push and pull, that keeps me coming back to this album. The best way to understand this dynamic might be just to listen right away to track 8, “Party Started,” and then track 7, “Sol y Sombra.” I know, I know, it’s out of order, but bear with me.

“Party Started,” is a song about, well, getting a party started. It begins with a turntable solo—yes, really—about eighteen seconds of a man going “wicky-wicky” with a record. Though if that’s all you hear there, you’re already missing something. Jamshid Khadiwhala isn’t just making noise. There’s phrasing, pitch, note choices. I didn’t even know you could do that before I listened to this album.

But don’t take it too seriously right now. You can’t. This song samples Olive Oyl, for God’s sake—listen for her going “Bluto!” every now and then. There’s that great underlying electric piano line throughout the whole thing, and then in place of verse three, singer and trumpet player Harry James Angus raps. Here’s a lyrical sample: “Chillin’ at the club, pimpin’ with my money/Well, actually, my parties are more like/Chillin’ in the sun with tea and milk and honey.” The last verse is mostly spelling. For sheer musical variety, you can’t beat it—every second brings something surprising and fun, and that sheer variety keeps it playful.

Now “Sol y Sombra.” It’s a six-minute long jazz song, and a complete left turn from what you just heard. It’s got a Latin groove with polyrhythmic percussion, and the piano solo break at 2:11 veers quickly into hard jazz territory, as Ollie McGill jumps out and back into the song’s harmonic structure repeatedly around 2:40. There’s a Latin horn section with clave patterns in the rhythm section at 4:40. This isn’t easy stuff, and certainly not what I would expect from people who were just advising me on the last song that they will “extend their alliance to anyone who likes to just sit back and chitchat/maybe have a jam, spit scats and eat biscuits.”

The disc's back cover. The US version of the album subs in "The Chariot" for "Misère" (track 6)

The disc’s back cover. The US version of the album subs in “The Chariot” for “Misèrere” (track 6)

I mean, come on. Isn’t that cool?

If my music nerd argument hasn’t convinced you, let me try a purely emotional one. Next, cue up “Sly,” “Two Shoes,” and then “The Car Song.”

When the brass kicks in on “Sly” at 0:09, I can’t help but smile as it crescendos. I can’t help smile either at the nonsense lyrics that Harry Angus sings at 1:16. I can’t help but smile when vocalist Felix Reibl asks me politely to “do the monkey shuffle/rock it with a funk stride/do the late checkout with the do not disturb sign outside.” When I get done listening to this song, my face is sore—it’s joyful noise in the purest sense of the term.

“The Car Song” sounds best on a sunny day, especially if you’re feeling a little crappy about the direction your life is headed in. Lyrically, it’s a reminder to live in the moment the best that you can, with an eye towards a bright future. I really didn’t like Harry’s voice the first time I heard it, so give it a couple listens to grow on you. There’s very subtle phrasing going on there, just like when he plays trumpet, and he doesn’t let the actual words get in the way of the flow of sound. The real beauty, though, is that he sounds entirely like himself. He’s not trying to change anything about his tone to fit someone else’s definition of a good voice. He just lets it go. And then there’s that breakdown at the 3:00 mark. Lethal.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like “Two Shoes.” If you don’t, that’s just fine, but there’s something about the Pink Panther-esque intro and the singalong chorus that’s tough not to like. I can’t really explain it. Can you?

Phew, ok. I’ll try my best to stop gushing for a moment about the incredible depth, humor, and sophistication of the songs to praise the album on a slightly more cohesive level.

Two Shoes was the band’s second full-length album. For many bands, the second record is the toughest one to make. “You have your whole life to make your first album,” the saying goes, but only about two years max to repeat the phenomenon, and many band’s second albums never live up to their first. In this case, though, Two Shoes actually surpasses The Cat Empire. It is a more literate, more polished record, as well as a more focused one—the group’s slightly schizophrenic stylistic tendencies on their first album (which includes, honestly, a klezmer song) are here harnessed and streamlined to reflect the band’s surroundings in Havana, where they recorded the album.

And you can hear it—the Latin rhythmic complexity is there, as is the wonderfully warm horn section. Despite the fact that it was made in the same room where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded, it’s by no means a record of Cuban music. This is what’s supposed to happen when you make a record on location—the sounds that surround you should slip into the songs without overwhelming them, the same way you would substitute local spices into a dish you’d been making for years. It’s the same phenomenon that happens on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it’s a really tricky thing to do well. The Rolling Stones’ Goat Head Soup, for example, was recorded in Jamaica, but sounds like it could have been cut in West Sussex.

Like the Stones, though, The Cat Empire can’t sound like anything but themselves. They have a stylistic blend and a group dynamic that can’t be replicated. Much like with Chris Thile and Michael Daves’ album, though, the true defining element isn’t in the music at all, but in the way the group plays it. They sound happy, excited and focused—the best versions of themselves. More than anything else, that’s what this album is about. It’s about celebrating the best version of yourself, whatever that may be. Nobody’s perfect, The Cat Empire says, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate it.

Song of the Week: The Crowd, The Cat Empire

This post originally appeared on Turntablr, the conceptual inspiration for Vintage Voltage

Click here to listen to “The Crowd,” by the Cat Empire

I used to not like this song at all. With a group like The Cat Empire, however, it’s only a matter of time before you like everything they do. “The  Crowd,” off of 2003’s The Cat Empire, snuck up on me until two days ago I realized I loved it.

Harry Angus’s vocal delivery is not for everyone, but he serves as a counterpoint to Felix Reibl’s (the band’s other lead singer) fluid and suave lyricism. Perhaps Harry’s lackadaisical approach to singing is why I like his voice a little more than Felix’s—he just sounds more relaxed.

Much like Van Morrison, Harry is continually tinkering with his phrasing. Accents and stresses change constantly, and the lyrics themselves are brilliant: “But life is curved not angular/so when things start to strangle ya/remember rain still falls on the halls of power/new babies being born every hour.” He also gets points for the Ezra Pound reference–not really someone you expect to find name-checked in a pop tune.

The groove is laid back and blissed-out. Ollie McGill’s electric piano intro makes the song sound almost like a musical hangover until 3:35, when the track breaks into a huge bridge. After that, it’s a feel-good explosion of noise that surges under a message of compassion (“Let me mingle with the good people we meet”).

If you like the Cat Empire, this is a great track that you may have overlooked. If you don’t like the Cat Empire, go check out the entire Two Shoes album. If you still don’t like them after that, go see a doctor.