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Cats On Fire
Our Temperance Movement Neil Kulkarni , June 29th, 2009 15:36

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Edith fucking Bowman, how shit is guitar music right now? No wonder those off-the-peg indie-duds H&M and Topman are making such a killing with are in such infant-sizes - indie-fans must be fucking starving, malnourished, Biafran on these rations, these crumbs in the dust. 14 years ago I wrote this about indie-rock nearly-rans Sleeper- "Indie is four people getting together wanting to create something sublime and immortal having had their lives swallowed by pop and needing to do the same, surveying the infinite possibilities and deciding three guitars some drums and some good songs will just about do". I wrote it whilst frowning and not getting any, but in 1995 it seemed like a fair response to the 2nd gen tide of unpleasant big-sideburned britplop swilling around the stevelamacq-skidsmeared u-bend of our everyday, an era in which we were being earnestly told by all kinds of earnest movers & shakers in rugby shirts that Echobelly & Republica & Cast & The Verve were more deserving of our attention than Sepultura & Killah Priest & Tarnation & Pizzicato 5 (I know! sheer madness!), an era in which the foundations & blueprints of that crucial RETREAT of nerve committed on our behalf by a shitscared media (the retreat that we can now blame for our current Britschoolumni hell) were being drawn up and decided by pusillanimous pie-chart wielding chuckleheads across the capital (now in higher-waged dotages across our airwavesthankyouverymuch) .

Now, in 2009, in this permanent 85 we're in Jeez, 'some good songs' by a guitar band would be a Godsent mannabomb from heaven, now that the 'craft' has been so thoroughly ambushed and owned by Xenomania & Gary Barlow (show me an indie-rock song from the past three years that's been better - let alone sounds better - than those Take That singles?) & fucked up and fallen-short of by virtually everyone else (especially the kind of suppurating arseholes currently forming bands faster than Zane Lowe can empty the spitoon). I'm not holding my breath for a big indie pop band to care about again, but I do try and keep my mouth shut - like you would in a festival toilet - whenever exposed to indierock in case some of the particles get in my mouth y'know? Kings Of Leon to the left of us and Kasabian to the right of us and all that Oasis in the middle and hippies twiddling everywhere else. Never mind giving it ten minutes, we need to leave indierawk the fuck alone for a year or five just to shift the stench.

On the upside we can't deteriorate further than the plateau of ordure we're surfing on at the moment. For the longest time the wrong people have been forming bands and are getting signed & hyped & played & supported by those same kinds of wrong people currently running tings across this industry-that-will-not-die. You've seen the next-decade's-stars the past 12-years of withered expectations and ambitions have bequeathed us: walking the streets with Peavey bags on their backs, our future captains of pop - not-really-posh-honest-off-the-peg-shabby fucks for whom music is everything maan cos they don't have anything else to fucking worry about, too many beanies, way too much facial hair and nowhere near enough care, poise or genuine ostracized commitment.

Never in the past five years have I felt like I'm listening to a band whose music has to negotiate the cracks in their life (apart from the one in their arses obviously), or for whom music serves any purpose beyond itself. There are no cracks in their life, no bigger battles, nothing the campus indie-soc/Oasis doesn't know about music: crucially all this bad art they're making never lost these chumps any friends, it inevitably finds them entire circles of wankers to applaud their planet-sized smugness. The atrophy & pffft that's crept into schmindie songwriting, it's inability to stop either whining undeservedly (Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay, U2) or whoop smartarsedly at its own mistranslated-fortune-cookie profundity & pissweak satire (Los "Hipsters' Scouting For Girls" Campesinos, U2, Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay) or simply be about utterly pointless shit (Kooks), it's crippled inability to step anywhere beyond relationship-advice, text-speak self-pity or wtf confusion - pop squeezed out in the gap year, pop who's vaunting ambition is to find itself scratching it's stubble while getting it's arse kissed on the T4 couch, pop in loathing of any language you couldn't read in the Heatmag advice pages. Pop which, time and time again, when confronted with the very real threat of Jools 'Someone Shoot Him He's The Piano Player' Holland throwing down some hoary ol'dogshite boogie-woogie ivories over it never responds with the frenzied fists the viewing public crave, always only the nod, the smile, the shrug, that masonic-handshake made of laid-back gestures that ushers you into club Sunday Supplement-Pop. Such beige horizons and the immortal belonging they promise are wide enough to include everyone from the most globulous dinosaurs to the spikiest new straplings,

Fatally, this sick mainstream is fed by an equally spineless underground. So the grisly authenticity of most chartpop remains unchallenged by all the noodledoodling in the peripheries - all that proof that sonic confection is nothing without conviction. Aimless meandering muchly - I'm not remotely suggesting that wanting to form a band should be reason enough for imprisonment or detention (I'm thinking thumbscrews & waterboarding might be more effective as it goes) but can't somebody stop these gurgling giggling galoots gathering together after dark in their rehearsal rooms and recording studios, can't something be done once we've figured out bands have nothing to say to stop them saying it anymore? This whole decade of indie guitarring, when whittled down to only what is top pop quality extends as far as the first two Strokes albums, the first Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys singles, the Good Shoes & Vampire Weekend albums and what else? The decade of Oasis and Green Day if we're being real, the twin middle-aged millionaire perpetrators of GENERATIONS of damage to young hoaxed pop minds. That's a separate case to be brought to the European Court of Human Rights in due course but for now, for the next thirty minutes, don't worry about it is the message. The Finns have sorted it out for everyone. Don't they always?

See, I can't stop playing this Cats On Fire thing. It's not the greatest album of the year, probably - that'll be a toss up 'tween far hipper, more self-promoting outfits from nascent scenes across the planet. Cats On Fire are actually getting dissed on the internet for their lack of self-promotion, and the first thing people seem surprised by is that this be Finnish and doesn't sound like Darkthrone. If this record slips on by 2009 it'd fit, accidentally, with the sound and the songs - for these are special and precious and perhaps not for these times. For starters, you can hear them (a lot of what I'm about to say sounds like the kind of thing your mum and dad said about pop when you were a kid for which I can't apologise). No fog, only the fireworks that can happen between clean, pure unpedal-affected guitars and drums. Strong rhythms. Killer tunes. No new production tricks, a 50s radiance and shimmer with a 70s warmth and an 80s pose - down to what's important, and all is important. Needed at this groggy stage for rock - some purity of purpose linked with a purity of sound, some fucking balls, some proper dignified campness shot through ennui and standing up for a vintage cynicism, an unrequited endless love, a heroic warmth that's the coolest response to this cold dry age.

Right now who cares whether guitar music's being 'inventive' or 'innovative' enough? Cram all that doodaddery, guitar music needs to rediscover the art of songwriting again, wipe the slate clean, earn its right to piss about again ‘cos we're drowning in the lukewarm yellow stuff down here. And only what's noble and dignified is gonna save us, something that sinks in rather than sinks us in that fathomless portabog that noughties indierock has become. At times like these the clear and good-hearted stops being a tradition to kick against with confusion and aggression, starts becoming the real alternative to all the faux-extremity and frowning.

So on one level the perfectly-monikered Temperance Movement IS just 'some good songs'. And hallelujah, it will more than do. It's an album I love because it's so likable, possibly that likability wouldn't survive the perils of modern fame - but I hope Cats On Fire make it because they've made this and they deserve it. Tempted to toss it at first. The guys' voice was so Morrissey I felt furtive. But the band made it impossible to leave. Opener 'Tears In My Cup' throws down trump cards and silver with such controlled joy, the sound rich with a swing and punch that aren't pushy or perfect, just locked-on, confident, beautiful. In a flabby age where even the boiled down seems too loud Cats On Fire make the revolutionary leap of sounding just right, and hit all the right balances. It's a sound that's close but not forced down your throat. In the room but not petulantly raw. A sound informed by all sorts but somehow unique to the characters in this room and thus able to fly where the words take it. The sheer chest rush of 'Tears' masks its conciseness, how the gorgeous melodic ease (or the illusion of ease which is the neatest trick of all) from Ville Hoppenen's Fender gets the tune cleaved to the heart within a minute's exposure. Most miraculously, for the next 30 minutes and nine songs there was no fall-off, only new shapes of the same sweetness and fire, vocals that mattered, harmonies that mattered just as much. Even weirder, by the time I emerged dancing in the daze of a crush with guitar music again I was most in love with the man up front, the star who should be, dishy dreamboat Matthias Bjorkas.

He's gorgeous, which helps. Cats On Fire all look amazing as it happens. Very pretty, very fuckable. As pure eye-candy and heart-quickener Bjorkas twangs the same straps as the young Edwyn Collins, but if you can't pick your heart out of the lines he sings and the way he sings them you have my full permission to continue running the planet."Expel the Marxist ghost the cynical consumerist remains" he nails himself a minute in, thence come tales of misplaced arson ('Garden Lights') , the skewered precocity of "Letters From A Voyage To Sweden" (on deck amidst the meatheads and stag parties the teenage Bjorkas takes a fringe-hidden 'great pleasure in being right'), the wondrous 'Play With Fire'-feel of 'Never Sell The House', the Love-like 'A Steady Pace' ("you're not into art / The moment someone wants you to be / And I could leave you here / Tie my shoes and prance away") and the pre-Army Elvis stylings of 'Lay Down Your Arms' & 'Horoscope' ("We should have gone a long time ago / Now Sweden has drifted too far away / You come from a family who can afford to be eccentric / Go back and cry to them").

Throughout 'Temperance' the lyrics are male without being lairy, wonderfully & winningly fogyish as only the young can be and, okay I'm naming soundalikes, but Cats On Fire are a band smart enough to know nothing's original but the people putting it together. Bjorkas has a voice that you want to hear again and again because it can be more than one thing at a time: arch and witty without causing resentment, Lothario and feather lite, heartfelt & sentimental whilst still confident and convincing, because his voice has that thing, that real in-the-room/unreal beamed-in-from-Venus thing that makes your insides flip, that thing everyone in Cats On Fire plays to. And it's been a long fucking time man - you lot had the Smiths. I could never get over my prejudices with them. Vis-a-vis boy-guitar-pop, I've found something to listen to once 'Between The Buttons' has run out. Yeah, a long time. No filler because each of the ten songs here become killer at different times in your relationship with this record as it unfolds over the coming months. You want to spend time with it. You don't feel you ought to. And that's miraculous.

Miraculous. That a record so thoroughly traditional in sound never sounds like it's copped-off or desperate or over-stretching itself. For something just to be beautiful inside and out. That you're hearing a band neither hiding in distortion's familiar cushions or stroppily minimalising what needs oomph . That you're hearing a band uninterested in guiltily making moves on electronica's perfection and ironing out all nuance, a band careless about the testosterone and perma-tan and ruffled machismo and mithering sanctimony modern rock production offers with the tug of a knob. A guitar band only interested in making the best pop music they can. A band simply & naturally existing in their own sound in their own room at their own imperfect pace armed with songs worthy of such a four-man marvel. Let's avoid (as some unfortunates already haven't) hysterically tagging Cats On Fire as 'the rebirth of indie' like what's going on here is defibrillation. The corpse is gone - put the tag on the toe & close the draw. NO, what's going on here is truly beautifully great pop, pure and simple and jeez people, keep your voices down. Nobody let the bastards tromp in and spoil this, don't let it be corrupted by anything so vile as being on today's pulse Cats On Fire are smaller & way more important than that, too cherishable to give up to modern-pop's spectacular irritations and infections. Amidst the blather and blare of all those bills and gongs elsewhere, Our Temperance Movement, a guitar record free of cacophony, feels like the moment an entire genre can get over its inferiority & superiority complexes, and start genuinely competing with the best of pop again, start swimming in the same place as Britney & GA & Outkast & the important playaz who really own your days this decade. On the quiet like.

Of course I secretly hope it blows up like the godfather, to whit a quote for the ads: "Best Scandinavian pop album since Gran Turismo or Arrival" but let's make this youknowhat, and everyone else from Bowman to Wylie to Fearne and Vern and Conor and all those Marks and Alexes can just step the fuck OFF of something for a change. Not for you fuckers. For us starlets. So good it hurts your heart.

alan savage
Jan 6, 2010 2:05am

This is a great album chock full of really good songs and it has a Noel Coward-like feyness which is refreshing. It is mostly a testosterone-free zone - so if you like your guitar/pop/rock all boozy and leery forget it! It is also quite Smiths-like in places which is no bad thing. Twangy and clean sounding guitars shimmer over great tight straight forward rhythms - these guys have a great 'beat group' sensibility. Why am I babbling? Just buy it/download it - Cats On Fire might just be the band to save your life! I am typing this from Manila by the way - music travels!

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