[11 August 2010]
Cats on Fire, a Finnish indie-pop act with only two full-lengths released, have decided it’s time to release a batch of hard-to-find and unreleased tracks. If it seems a bit early, it seems even odder when Dealing in Antiques opens with a cover of White Town’s “Your Woman”. The performance doesn’t feel tongue-in-cheek, and actually fits in well with the band’s other work, but it’s still a bit odd. Fortunately, the material holds up well enough to warrant a compilation, and even the cover sounds like a new classic.
Critics frequently reference the Smiths as a comparison to the band, but groups like the Go-Betweens and the Lucksmiths have a more similar feel. Cats on Fire writes catchy, familiar-sounding songs, but don’t revel in big hooks or instantaneous earworms. The jangles and straightforward lines build the sort of atmosphere that leads you to put on glasses just to listen.
The spectacles might come in handy, because the band (led by Mattias Bjorkas) does show a predilection for literary songwriting, and in the way that that term usually gets bandied about. The songs are smart and mature, but not given to melodrama or overexpression. They’re just tight three-minute nuggets that end up being more than they sound.
The song title “Poor Students Dream of Marx” should give you a good sense of the band’s lyrical sensibility. The song—one of the disc’s finest—doesn’t work exactly like you’d expect. The song creates a tension between Marxist and romantic uncertainties. Unable to go out or to stay in, the singer repeats the title phrase both as a description and as an imperative given to “poor students”. The final piece sounds dreamy, lost and a little worried, the political implications being overshadowed by a more general state of being. You probably don’t need to be poor or a student to relate.
“Honey Your Baby” takes a look at songwriting itself, succeeding in an area that could become self-indulgent largely because of Bjorkas’s ambivalence toward the whole project. The song comes from an early self-titled EP (the kind of thing that gets released in a batch of 200 vinyls released in the Czech Republic). It’s an early moment of the band taking a serious and critical look at themselves. The song finds a certain inanity in pop music, and in the creative process where you simply have to “write another song about your girlfriend and her bed” to have a hit. It’s a revealing moment.
Fortunately, if it reveals a certain cynicism, it didn’t end the writing endeavor. The band, while lacking a certain amount of productivity, hasn’t lacked quality in its recordings. You’d struggle to pick out which of these songs are the demos or unreleased cuts. “Poor Students”, for example never previously appeared on a release, despite being one of the highlights on Dealing in Antiques. That comment shouldn’t disparage the quality of the group’s released work; instead, it’s meant to demonstrate the success of all of this material.
After roughly nine years together, you’d think the band would have a third full-length ready to go without just looking at vintage material. Fortunately, the music’s strong enough and the tracks (assembled chronologically) are cohesive enough for this release to work as something other than a fan-only record. With the band’s Matinee debut coming just a year ago and now this release, maybe it’s time to hope these guys will make their efficiency match their quality.