Melbourne-based six piece tries to crack the U.S. market with an exuberant fusion of Latin, reggae, jazz, hip hop, and soul.
I heard the Cat Empire for the first time while sitting in a hotel room on the Gold Coast north of Brisbane, Australia in December 2003. I was watching the Boxing Day test match, trying to sort out the rules of cricket while relieving an overwhelming case of jet lag with a couple bottles of Victoria Bitter (called "VB stubbies" by the locals). Eventually, I turned down the sound on the television and found a local radio station. One of the first songs was the ridiculously catchy "Hello", the first single from the Cat Empire’s self-titled debut album released in Australia in 2003. After hearing it for days in every kebab stand and coffee shop up and down the beach, I finally went looking for a record shop and picked up a copy of that disc.
Now, four years and three albums later, the Melbourne-based group stands poised to break out in the U.S. After touring relentlessly throughout Australia, the group is bringing their famously energetic live show to mid-sized venues all over the U.S. A six piece ensemble featuring Oliver McGill on keyboards, Felix Riebl on percussion and vocals, Ryan Monroe on double bass, Harry James Angus on trumpet, Will Hull-Brown on drums, and Jamshid “Jumps” Khadiwala as DJ, plus a rotating cast of horn players, dancers, and assorted guests, the band plays an exuberant fusion of Latin, reggae, jazz, hip hop, and soul. As their website says, the Cat Empire is “[w]here the hip-hop community dance to Gypsy, the jazz purists jump to hip-hop, the Latinos bop to reggae, the rastas shake to latin, the elderly sweat to funk, the youth swing to dancehall, and everyone wakes up a little happier.” Imagine a more cosmopolitan, energetic, and less stoned Sublime.
Recorded at Havana, Cuba’s legendary Egrem Studios -- site of landmark recordings by the Buena Vista Social Club, Ruben Gonzalez, and many other luminaries -- the Latin influences are a bit more prominent on Two Shoes than on the band’s prior recordings. While nothing on the new disc matches the sheer catchiness of "Hello", propelled as it was by a wonderful horn section hook and Felix Reibl’s laid back rapping, producer Jerry Boys (R.E.M., The Rolling Stones) has done a nice job capturing the band’s infectious energy and enthusiasm on disc.
Two Shoes leads off with the comparatively straight ahead rocker "Sly". Although it features some nice trumpet work by Harry Angus, it’s a little ordinary, especially in comparison to the band’s earlier recordings. Luckily, the band soon hits its stride, showing off its sense of humor on "The Car Song", a catchy tale narrated by a kid struggling in school ("It’s Monday bloody Monday and there’s two things I forgot/ I forgot to do my homework and I’ve only got one sock"), wistfully dreaming of a carefree future ("Someday I’ll buy an old car/ Someday I’ll get that car to start/ Someday I’ll learn how to drive too/ Well, then, someday imagine all the things I could do"). Though it’s hardly an original topic, the band’s energy and wit (not to mention the sheer silliness of the basketball-themed video) make it seem fresh.
Next up, the title track "Two Shoes" channels a relaxed Latin-tinged reggae vibe, while acknowledging one of the band’s influences (“Cos on my feet are shoes for dancing/ Dancing to be free/ My feet they’re paying tribute to/ The Bobby Marley legacy”). Finally, "The Chariot" sounds like nothing more than Third Wave British ska. Prominently featuring the Cat Empire Horns, this track showcases the band’s optimistic outlook without being preachy. Though Two Shoes is a bit short, and perhaps not quite the equal of the band’s earlier albums, it’s an excellent introduction to the Cat Empire’s exuberant fusion sound.