A review of The Cat Empire – So Many Nights

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Cat Empire
So Many Nights
Sept 2007, $25aud, 5099950638321

Forget the didgeridoo. The Cat Empire has to be the real sound of Australia. It’s multicultural, young, accomplished, fresh, funky and above all, fun.

They’ve stayed down-to-earth, innovative, and intimate despite their first two albums making platinum status and their third receiving an ARIA. This is a band that refuses to be pigeonholed. Listen to them, and I dare you not to smile and dance, even if you’re feeling glum. Their latest, So Many Nights is just a bit smoother and sweeter – maybe pop-ier than their last four.

Thank goodness they’ve only let Harry James Angus sing lead vocals on three songs – his nasal whine is great for back up, but fingernails-on-the-blackboard unbearable on lead mic. Actually, that’s not fair. He’s not that bad on “The Darkness”. His voice is a capable gypsy’s howl, but it does take you right to the limits of what is bearable and just a bit beyond it. The strings come in just at the point when your head begins to pound. He’s great on the trumpets though.

Felix Riebl’s voice, on the other, holds everything together. It’s smoother than Italian cheesecake. It handles rap, meringue, big band sound, ska, funk, or jazz with an equal laid back smiling croon. And just when you think you can’t be caressed any more sweetly, along comes Oliver McGill on his amazing piano tearing your heart out with virtuoso. And then comes the trumpets, the flugelhorn, the trombone, the guitars, and the whole thing explodes into a terrific party where you just can’t stop dancing.

I kind of miss the heady Cuban influence that was such a feature on Two Shoes but I know that songs like “So Many Nights”, “No Longer There”, and “So Long” will be chart toppers (I think “No Longer There” is sitting at number 12 in Australia) and can’t blame the band for bringing in a few more quickly accessible pieces. There’s a lot of depth under the smiling fun and perhaps a few more thoughtful pieces in the mix, like “Panama” (“I love things that seem impossible”). Even at its most accessible, the songs are always deeper than your average pop with the layering of horns, vocals, that rappy DJ scratch that’s always underscoring the maturity of this work reminding you that this is music for the utterly hip, great piano (that McGill is quite amazing), violins, guitars, cellos, congas, timbales, organs, even a schlagzeug.

The Spanish influence is back on “Radio Song” which would be simple pop if it weren’t for that great horn work and percussion that comes in like a hot cup of java in between the basic riffs. Nah, it’s better than coffee. Wake up. The party’s starting. Put your waistcoat on. “Fishies” is similarly Latin. Felix’s trademark talk-singing (he’s more confident with his voice on this CD than in the others) mingles with the maracas, the Empire horns, McGill’s incredible piano, and you’ll be hooked like a fishie.

Most of the songs are easy enough to catch on from the first listen. There are lots of songs about the madness of traveling on the road, as always, about pretty women, about wild characters, and about the environment. The CD ends with “Won’t be Afraid”, a song that completely defies genre, bringing the whole band together in a tight melee. The bluesy, groovy, soulful sound combines with great organ-work, those amazing horns, percussion, and an ecological message that make a great, high energy finish. This is good stuff.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.