Young bands rarely have their own sound, at least not out of the gate anyway. Normally, they have to work through a few tedious years of sounding generic before —if they’re lucky—finding a voice worth hearing. Australia’s the Cat Empire are luckier than most. Their career arc has found them getting progressively stronger since their formation in 1999, but even early on, they were working at a unique blend of club shimmy, jazz horns, and Latin rhythms. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing either imploded or started coming together. Luckily, it was the latter.
Like Calexico, the Cat Empire use horns and use them well. Their horn arrangements, courtesy of member Ross Irwin, are often spectacular and creative, making intriguing songs out of what would normally just be decent ones, and taking really good songs to new heights entirely. To hear the Cat Empire’s horns is to hear what’s seriously lacking in so many other bands: a willingness to step past the familiar boundaries of guitar/bass/drums/keyboards boundaries. This is, by and large, party music, but when you hear the way the trumpets blaze over the playful piano in “Fishies”, you can tell that the Cat Empire have a pretty clear idea of what they’re doing.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the band also know their way around a baker’s dozen of different styles, from funk to ska to soul to jazz to latin. Their previous disc, 2005’s Two Shoes, was even recorded in Havana, Cuba, and the band’s forays into Latin grooves never felt like they were the work of dilettantes. Cat Empire’s music is often the sound of nighttime clubs and parties, and Felix Riebl’s hipster-speak vocals are a natural fit for the band’s slinky rhythms.
So Many Nights isn’t the nonstop party that Two Shoes was, but it might be the more interesting record, even though it ebbs and flows more in terms of quality. Where Two Shoes sometimes got by on irrepressible energy, So Many Nights actually slows things down on occasion, courtesy of several more sensitive songs that typically build to sweeping crescendos, and tries to broaden the Cat Empire’s sound a bit. Witness the Verve-worthy slow build of “Panama”, the desert feel of “The Darkness”, the Coldplay pop of “No Longer There”, or the blend of Cuban percussion and ska bounce in “Radio Song”. It might not always work, but the Cat Empire seem intent on expanding their palette a little bit.
The band’s success still comes down to the horns, though. Trumpeter Harry James Angus and the Empire Horns are thankfully all over So Many Nights, contributing jazz squalls to “Fishies” and “Strong Coffee”, lockstep walls of sound that could propel Ricky Martin’s precision hips on “Sunny Moon” and “Radio Song”, and dizzying dust devils of notes on “The Darkness”. Over it all, Riebl sings of women, clubs, women, parties, women, life on the road, and more women, while Angus’s reedy vocals add contrast through a few songs of his own.
The only real sonic misstep on So Many Nights is the inclusion of too much turntable scratching, which rarely adds anything to Cat Empire’s songs and which actually acts as a distraction on a few. Other than that, despite a few songs not measuring up to their companions, So Many Nights finds the Cat Empire broadening their sound with an enthusiasm that matches the fun-seeking “seize the night” attitude that lives in their songs.