Over seven short years of releases, Australia’s the Cat Empire have shown an admirable amount of restlessness. Once the group’s core lineup and sound came together, it would have been easy for the group to just go on cruise control. After all, the Cat Empire’s sound, a mix of styles ranging from ska to punk to jazz to Afro-Cuban rhythms, is bright and infectious. It’s doubtful too many people would have complained if the Cat Empire were content only to release a few catchy summer singles every couple of years, without ever straying too far from an established formula.
Don’t get me wrong. The Cat Empire’s albums are clearly party affairs, with the band jumping from style to style as it suited them—even if it seemed to be a style with which they didn’t seem to be intimately familiar, counting on their musicianship to bail them out. Even when they were treading on familiar ground, there were always subtle new ways to mix DJ scratching, trumpets, keyboards, and wild dual percussion. 2007’s So Many Nights found the band hitting its strongest stride yet, with easily a half-dozen songs, like “So Many Nights”, “Fishies”, and “Voodoo Cowboy”, immediately sounding like concert staples.
Their latest, Cinema, is reportedly the band’s most collaborative effort yet, with all members (singer/percussionist Felix Riebl, vocalist/trumpeter Harry Angus, bassist Ryan Monro, keyboardist Ollie McGill, drummer Will Hull-Brown, and JD Jamshid Khadiwala) contributing to the songwriting process. It also features, by the band’s own admission, fewer forays into bold new genre frontiers in favor of a more cohesive, road-forged “Cat Empire” sound.
Perhaps that’s what makes Cinema feel like a more restrained affair, if that’s possible with the Cat Empire. The horns swell, the keyboards burble, there’s even some harsh hard rock chords in “Feelings Gone”, but there aren’t any songs that shatter through their own boundaries to make you exclaim “Holy crap!” the way the breakneck trumpets and spicy piano of “Fishies” did. “Only Light”, for example, rides on a slinky keyboard melody, and the piano bounce of “All Hell” is suitably aggressive and raucous. Yet those are simply parts of songs that appeal, not songs that make me lunge to play the cut two or three times in a row.
Cinema boasts a slightly darker lyrical vibe, so there could also be the tension of balancing that layer of seriousness against a club vibe. Whatever the case, Cinema is a pleasure to listen to, with plenty of nifty moments, but as a whole, it feels like the band has confined itself to a set of parameters that sacrifice some electricity in favor of cohesiveness. Fans of the band will find plenty to like here, and newcomers will hear a band with a unique sound, but the Cat Empire’s most spectacular songs, at least for the moment, wait in their back catalog.