Catskills Records' eclectic anniversary release features squeaky toys, kazoos and Finnish cheerleader champions.
In a world of corporate machines churning out constant, calculated waves of pop and indie labels with narrow brands, Brighton-based Catskills Records is a home for the action heroes we've all been waiting for, a ragtag group of artists who dabble in anything they can get their hands on. On 20 Years Of Victory, released for the label's 20th anniversary, we get to hear the eclectic fruits of their labors, which include ska, electropop, rock and roll, and, of course, Finland's reigning cheerleader champions.
Predominant on the album is Finnish group Pepe Deluxé, best known for their underground UK hit-slash-Levi's ad "Woman In Blue" and the Angry Birds Go! soundtrack. Everything is fair game for Pepe Deluxé, and in the six tracks featured on 20 Years Of Victory, they use mopeds, kazoos, ocarinas, and the aforementioned cheerleaders to make one-of-a-kind pieces with retro grooves in every style. Garage rocker "Pussy Cat Rock" has a quick and dirty vibe to it with cat growl effects and double entendres taken into overdrive, while thriller "A Night And A Day", pulled from Pepe Deluxé's sweeping pop opera Queen of the Wave, hits high drama with urgent electronic beats, powerful vocals, and a catchy guitar riff. "Woman In Blue" appears, of course, complete with the original samples of Nina Simone's version of "After You've Gone" that had to be pulled from its original release, and it packs a punch: simple, swirling and full of rhythm.
A few other Pepe Deluxé tracks also appear and they are appropriately whimsical and always fun. "Go Girl Go", written specifically for this anniversary album, stands alone well, an uplifting midtempo tune with horns, cheers, and cowbells, but it's not quite fast enough to dance to, and in the middle of so many other great songs, doesn't really stand out. This is hardly a sin, and it fits well enough into the Catskills canon, but it doesn't quite feel like it belongs; Pepe Deluxé isn't lacking when it comes to high quality cuts.
Neither, though, are the rest of the Catskills crew, and the variety outside the Pepe Deluxé tracks still astonishes. Hip-hop and a heavy dose of funk mark Feature Cast's bombastic opening song "Channel Surfing", and following track, "Spunky Love Fun", runs in a similar vein as The Mexican raps fruit names and samples old school drum beats for a more smooth, relaxed track. Black Grass alternates between reggae and ska on its tracks, while Husky Rescue tends toward soft, warm electronica – except for on standout track "Summertime Cowboy", a fiery standout with smoldering vocals and stinging guitars.
There's also Francophone pop from Capsule, a bouncy faux-punk song from the Ripps that walks the line between Japanese pop rock and the Pixies, and then soulful trip-hop from Hardkandy adds even more to the mix. It all comes to a head in "Sqezy Soul", a brassy track by Bushy and Sonic Boo that features squeaky toys and trumpets alike in a plugged-in tribute to 1970s Harlem and all the funk therein.
Partying may prevail on a majority of the album, but some of its best tracks go slow. One is a languid Bonobo remix of Bushy's "Never" that glides along at the perfect pace for deep breaths. Light percussion loops and occasional background vocal samples are the perfect elevating touches, Bonobo's lush signature visible from beginning to end. Zero Theory's "Mysterious Beautiful" is exactly what it claims to be, a bizarre mix of harp samples, jazz saxophone, and low-quality synths that somehow becomes an ultrahip music box.
Meanwhile, hiding in the midst of it all is the track that started everything: "Indian Motorcycles" by Sonorous Star, a moniker for the label's founders, brothers Khalid and Amr Mallassi. This is a simpler, rougher track, with glitchy sitar loops and stripped-down handclaps -- not a flashy cut, but a solid foundation.
Musically, there isn't much of a common thread between all the Catskills artists. Sometimes, not even a single group's output sounds like it could have possibly come from one source. Instead, what Catskills unfailingly releases is music for a certain mindset, songs that zigzag in new directions and let people have a good time listening. On that front, they can definitely claim 20 Years Of Victory.