As an entree into the American market, the Cat Empire offer a self-titled EP consisting of four songs from their Australian debut, two from Two Shoes (their second album, which is to be released as the U.S. debut next year), and some videos, including a live performance. This last is worth mentioning because it’s in the live setting that the band’s full personality emerges. The six members of the group jam on extended versions of their upbeat songs, dancing synchronously, and generally inciting the proverbial Good Times. Already, they’ve built up a solid following throughout the U.S. They’ve gone from the Lion’s Den early summer 2005, to Irving Plaza, to selling out the significantly larger Bowery Ballroom this year. At their last New York show, there was a palpable change in the makeup of the crowd: no longer primarily Aussies, the lively mix of accents incorporated Latin dancers, fratty undergrads, and the obligatory ex-pats.
But is this enough to break the Cat Empire into the elusive American market? Short answer is: probably not, though for a few people I bet the Cat Empire will become a new Favourite Band. These aren’t the folks who jump at a new Decemberists or Mountain Goats album, but perhaps if you harbor a secret love for Dave Matthews, or if you listened to Dispatch back in the day—there’s no shame in it.
The emphasis of the EP is as a preparation for the upcoming Two Shoes, which is fine if you get captivated: there are plenty of good older songs to discover—from the extended intro / funk explosion of “How to Explain” and “The Rhythm” to the music-over-all credos of “Manifesto” and “One, Four, Five”. “Hello” (which is on this disc, and was the band’s breakout hit) is, in fact, among the Cat Empire’s cheesiest tracks, though its cheeky joie de vivre, three years ago on the radio in the summer, was pretty much irresistible. I’m not going to argue: this is a legitimate critical response to the Cat Empire. Crappy raps? Yup. Feel-good horns? Yup. Fratty happy-funk pot hymns? Yup. But there’s nothing fake about the peace-loving, love-loving, life-loving effulgence of these songs, and if you’re in the mood to let them in, enjoying this music can be simply fun. You can practically hear Harry Angus and Felix Riebl grinning through each word; the effect is likeable above anything else. “Days Like These” is a perfect example: over an easy reggae rhythm, Felix sings “It’s days like these that’ll make us happy”.
The other big element of the Cat Empire sound is world music, in particular an increasing emphasis on Latin sounds and rhythms. The group is routinely considered in jazz categories for awards and such, and recently released a “project” record with more jazz and world influences than their usual rap-and-chorus songs. They recorded Two Shoes in Havana, and the influence shows on the EP’s newer songs: “The Car Song” chugs along with a sort of Latin rock-n-roll—not the most universally appealing of the band’s style experiments, but at least energetic. Much better is “Lullaby”, which takes this enduring TCE idea that the band’s persona can’t be contained in serenity, must excitedly explode—and sets it to a new, pattering beat and synth accompaniment.
Despite the “average” rating I’m giving this record, it’s going to be a favourite for at least a few Americans this year. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this mashing-together of styles in the name of celebrating life, but the Cat Empire do it extremely well because they do it with genuine passion. Listen to one or two tracks—if you like what you hear, you need to own this CD.