Not to freak the band out if they’re reading this, but on a recent trip to Chicago, I know for sure I saw Catfish Haven bassist Miguel Castillo on the sidewalk as I was driving past. If you’ve ever caught the band live, you’d recognize Castillo’s trademark beard and black-rimmed glasses. And if you’ve spent any quality time in the City of Broad Shoulders, you’ve probably crossed paths with Catfish Haven at some point, watching another band’s gig at the Hideout, or waiting for the next Blue Line train from Western. The band, who dropped their first record for Secretly Canadian earlier this year (the Please Come Back EP), projects an affable, down-to-earth charm both live and on record (the liner notes thank “all of the motherfuckers we got drunk with”). What separates Catfish Haven from their hard-touring and hard-rocking peers is the set of influences evident right out of the gate on their first full-length, Tell Me, an un-ironic blend of classic soul and early rock and roll.
Much of Tell Me suggests what Creedence Clearwater Revival would have sounded like if directed/produced by Otis Redding, cutting twelve minutes off of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and whatnot. The songs are tight and concise, as you’d expect from a power trio. The album starts off with George Hunter’s down-stroked acoustic guitar setting the tempo for the danceable “I Don’t Worry”. Like early R.E.M., the song is lean and nervy, but more bluesy than pastoral. Hunter wails his throat dry from the intro all the way through to the double-time finish, and it’s generally difficult to make sense of every lyric. “Ain’t gonna cry no more” pretty much sums up the tune. More important is the earnest conveyance of passion that drives Tell Me‘s songs of love and loss, on the other end of the spectrum from most of indie rock’s current fascination with all things studied and subdued.
Drummer Ryan Farnham opens the title track with a little finger snap-mimicking stickwork that soon gives way to actual handclaps and backing vocals straight out of Motown. The production is clean yet raw sounding, like it was recorded in a garage or attic studio, but by people who know their shit. By and large, all the instruments sound dry and relatively reverb-free, giving the record a stark and bracing immediacy. The torchy, horn-enhanced ballad “Down by Your Fire” sounds parched, even a little hurried. While refreshing at first, the unrelenting performance and production choices can grow wearying after awhile; it’s almost a case of a band capturing their live energy too well. Hunter goes full-throttle on the relatively low-key “If I Was Right” where downshifting for even just a moment would help break up the album’s exhausting pace.
The band starts to loosen up, however, on “Grey Skies”, a strange southern boogie rock/New Wave hybrid. The song drifts in and out in its initial moments and at the end blurs into the next track. But in the middle it lopes along on a sparse but interesting arrangement. Hunter growls around the interplay between Castillo and Farnham, rather than steamrollering over it. It’s not the catchiest or best track on Tell Me, but it suggests odd tangents and directions, room for the band to grow. The song that “Grey Skies” morphs into, “Let It Go (Got To Grow)” also features an unexpected break in its latter half, with moody saxophones (are saxophones ever not moody?) and Hunter’s rolling acoustic strum climbing out of the silence. When the band gives in more to their stranger impulses, there could be a lot more motherfuckers to share beers with.