[12 October 2008]
“Number one in your hearts and number one on the charts: Catfish Haven!”
The announcer introduces the band as if at a live show, and the booze-heavy call-and-response anthem begins with a feverish “Are You Ready”. But just by seeing the album title and cover art of Devastator, one can surmise that Catfish Haven’s debut rocks with a ‘70s kind of flair. The hot pink background with the silhouette of a lingerie-clad lady is as sexy as rock and roll gets. The flowery, cursive font is not unlike many of Bob Seger’s album fonts. In the vein of albums like Kiss’s Destroyer, ZZ Top’s Eliminator, and Lou Reed’s Transformer, Devastator stands as a quintessential ‘70s rock album. From blues rock to grungey disco, Devastator celebrates late ‘70s grandiosity with a vintage flair.
The trio now calls Chicago their home, but singer/guitarist George Hunter named the outfit after his small hometown in Missouri. Despite their Midwest roots, Catfish Haven’s sound exudes a certain Southern air. Hunter’s gravely vocals recall a brilliant mixture of Michael McDonald with Joe Cocker, which can initially be off-putting. Soon after listening, though, you’ll come to crave hearing his voice again. His soulful swagger against drummer Ryan Farnham’s crashing drum set makes tunes like “Set in Stone” that much more dynamic. “Tripping in Memphis” has a slow twang, and recalls the slow portion of the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright”. Drawn-out, reverberating vocals and bassist Miguel Castillo’s jaw-harp bass effects give this song a country feel.
The lack of studio polish might reveal the song’s present-day roots. “I don’t want to sound like a studio band,” Hunter has said. “I want to sound like a band.” The illusion of a crowd enters the picture on several tracks. For instance, the aforementioned “Set in Stone” involves accent “oohs” in multi-part harmonies setting the tone, and background vocals on the refrain reinforce the live sound. This also adds to the ‘70s disco quality, which comes across with jangling guitars and a laid-back saxophone. Hunter’s soaring vocals sit right above a continuous driving drum beat. Those disco undertones reappear on “Play the Fool” when the jangle of a guitar and sparkling percussion nestle under Hunter’s commanding presence.
Soul-filled ballads also find residency on Devastator. “Every Day” begins with the slowly-strummed, twangy guitar as Hunter and background vocals chant the song title. Hunter begins his crooning tirade as each chord’s note is plucked in slow succession. A song of love and loss, and then gain, Hunter’s words speak with the open devastation of a loved one’s abandonment and the continuous devotion Hunter retains. “I will cry for every day you are gone”, he begins. As he muses on, an absolutely minimal rhythm section keeps the space sparse and empty, just like the narrator feels. From these sluggish ballads to hyper blues rock, Catfish Haven has the best recipes for southern ‘70s rock today.