Australia’s Cat Empire has always been something of a hard nut to crack genre-wise. Covering a great deal of ground musically, this band of road-tested world citizens takes every new style on like a challenge to the death, doing anything within their power to turn each track into an exploratory masterpiece.
Having successfully conquered Latin America by merging the Buena Vista Social Club into their membership on sophomore album Two Shoes, band-leader Harry James Angus (who plays trumpet and sings on the album) could easily have repeated what worked on the last album. Even a retread would have still sounded invigorating, considering no other band currently performing has a sound this adventurous. Instead, the band stretches even further, creating an album complex enough in its genre-hopping madness to essentially demand repeat listening simply to soak everything in.
As fun an album as this is, So Many Nights is not an easy listen. The album is nearly an hour long and has fifteen distinctive tracks, and the band tries out so many different ideas throughout the album’s length that it can become somewhat dizzying to try and take it all in during one listening session. Yet listening to the album straight through in a single setting alows standout tracks to emerge, and subsequent listens slowly expose just how well-constructed a release this album is. It won’t be the best introduction to the band for American audiences — I’d encourage interested parties to get their hands on a copy of Two Shoes if they are looking for something more easily digestable. But So Many Nights, after a few listens, emerges as the band’s most distinctive and impressive effort.
The standout tracks are plenty, and they all make their own statement for what the band has to offer. The title track, which opens the album, makes a solid introductory single, similar to the role “Sly” played on the band’s previous effort. The song displays, in three-and-a-half minutes, everything about the band’s jazz-funk-infused sound, complete with all the vocal theatrics that make bandleader Angus so damned interesting to listen to. It seems unlikely that the single will get much airplay in the US, where genre guidelines are too rigid, but as an online download introduction to the band’s sound, it’s hard to beat.
But dig within the album and you find even shinier gems. “Until The Ocean Takes Us All” merges alternative hip-hop touches with a melody built on a relatively simple reggae base. Angus lets it all out on the mindbendingly addictive chorus, showing all the range of his falsetto, and even in a tight three minutes the band even gets the chance to go into controlled jam mode in the middle, making the song hard to ignore. Or to avoid repeating again and again.
“Voodoo Cowboy” explores Australia’s facination with American country music, crafting an intriguing psychedelic cowboy tale over a sly funky backdrop, nothing of which actually overtly cries “country.” The song plays opposite of “The Darkness,” which is the album’s longest track (and a clear centerpiece), exploring complex latin and eastern European melodies via another incredibly seductive hook. When the song speeds up near the two minute mark and Angus lets loose with everything his voice has to give, the song becomes hair-raisingly raw, challenging the ilstener to take it all in without having to start over again and hear it all from the beginning. You’ll have to look pretty hard to find a more adventurous orchestration in music which is, for all accounts, still pop at its core.
Even the “hidden track” at the end of the album, “Wanted To Write A Love Song,” manages to become critical to the overall reasons the album is so successful. It’s the closest song you’ll get to what fans heard before on Two Shoes, but it also blends in the more complex melodic structures of songs which came before on the current effort. It’s also the band’s most “fun” moment, as they abandon all pretext of seriousness during the song’s instrumental horn-breakdown at the 1:15-mark. This is invigorating music at its best and it demands to be heard!
The rest of the album falls around these key tracks, providing balance and depth to the experience. Though initially the key tracks shine more than the rest, repeated listens allow the entire album to gel, showing just how complex and original So Many Nights is. No American bands came close to this level of interesting music during 2008. For the lover of meaningful music who happens to be adventurous enough to take the Cat Empire plunge and give the album time to fully coalesce, there’s not likely to be a more fun way to spend your holidays than by giving this album the full headphone experience.