Basically, I miss them LOADS, so here's everything I've written about them. Only 'conventional' guitar band to spin my propellor in nearly 20 years.
CATS ON FIRE
OUR TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT
Johanna Kustannus Records
*review first appeared on The Quietus, June 29th, 2009*
(Edith fucking Bowman, how shit is guitar music right now? No wonder those off-the-peg indie-duds H&M and Topman are making such a killing with are in such infant-sizes - indie-fans must be fucking starving, malnourished, Biafran on these rations, these crumbs in the dust. 14 years ago I wrote this about indie-rock nearly-rans Sleeper- "Indie is four people getting together wanting to create something sublime and immortal having had their lives swallowed by pop and needing to do the same, surveying the infinite possibilities and deciding three guitars some drums and some good songs will just about do". I wrote it whilst frowning and not getting any, but in 1995 it seemed like a fair response to the 2nd gen tide of unpleasant big-sideburned britplop swilling around the stevelamacq-skidsmeared u-bend of our everyday, an era in which we were being earnestly told by all kinds of earnest movers & shakers in rugby shirts that Echobelly & Republica & Cast & The Verve were more deserving of our attention than Sepultura & Killah Priest & Tarnation & Pizzicato 5 (I know! sheer madness!), an era in which the foundations & blueprints of that crucial RETREAT of nerve committed on our behalf by a shitscared media (the retreat that we can now blame for our current Britschoolumni hell) were being drawn up and decided by pusillanimous pie-chart wielding chuckleheads across the capital (now in higher-waged dotages across our airwavesthankyouverymuch) .
Now, in 2009, in this permanent 85 we're in Jeez, 'some good songs' by a guitar band would be a Godsent mannabomb from heaven, now that the 'craft' has been so thoroughly ambushed and owned by Xenomania & Gary Barlow (show me an indie-rock song from the past three years that's been better - let alone sounds better - than those Take That singles?) & fucked up and fallen-short of by virtually everyone else (especially the kind of suppurating arseholes currently forming bands faster than Zane Lowe can empty the spitoon). I'm not holding my breath for a big indie pop band to care about again, but I do try and keep my mouth shut - like you would in a festival toilet - whenever exposed to indierock in case some of the particles get in my mouth y'know? Kings Of Leon to the left of us and Kasabian to the right of us and all that Oasis in the middle and hippies twiddling everywhere else. Never mind giving it ten minutes, we need to leave indierawk the fuck alone for a year or five just to shift the stench.
On the upside we can't deteriorate further than the plateau of ordure we're surfing on at the moment. For the longest time the wrong people have been forming bands and are getting signed & hyped & played & supported by those same kinds of wrong people currently running tings across this industry-that-will-not-die. You've seen the next-decade's-stars the past 12-years of withered expectations and ambitions have bequeathed us: walking the streets with Peavey bags on their backs, our future captains of pop - not-really-posh-honest-off-the-peg-shabby fucks for whom music is everything maan cos they don't have anything else to fucking worry about, too many beanies, way too much facial hair and nowhere near enough care, poise or genuine ostracized commitment.
Never in the past five years have I felt like I'm listening to a band whose music has to negotiate the cracks in their life (apart from the one in their arses obviously), or for whom music serves any purpose beyond itself. There are no cracks in their life, no bigger battles, nothing the campus indie-soc/Oasis doesn't know about music: crucially all this bad art they're making never lost these chumps any friends, it inevitably finds them entire circles of wankers to applaud their planet-sized smugness. The atrophy & pffft that's crept into schmindie songwriting, it's inability to stop either whining undeservedly (Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay, U2) or whoop smartarsedly at its own mistranslated-fortune-cookie profundity & pissweak satire (Los "Hipsters' Scouting For Girls" Campesinos, U2, Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay) or simply be about utterly pointless shit (Kooks), it's crippled inability to step anywhere beyond relationship-advice, text-speak self-pity or wtf confusion - pop squeezed out in the gap year, pop who's vaunting ambition is to find itself scratching it's stubble while getting it's arse kissed on the T4 couch, pop in loathing of any language you couldn't read in the Heatmag advice pages. Pop which, time and time again, when confronted with the very real threat of Jools 'Someone Shoot Him He's The Piano Player' Holland throwing down some hoary ol'dogshite boogie-woogie ivories over it never responds with the frenzied fists the viewing public crave, always only the nod, the smile, the shrug, that masonic-handshake made of laid-back gestures that ushers you into club Sunday Supplement-Pop. Such beige horizons and the immortal belonging they promise are wide enough to include everyone from the most globulous dinosaurs to the spikiest new straplings,
Fatally, this sick mainstream is fed by an equally spineless underground. So the grisly authenticity of most chartpop remains unchallenged by all the noodledoodling in the peripheries - all that proof that sonic confection is nothing without conviction. Aimless meandering muchly - I'm not remotely suggesting that wanting to form a band should be reason enough for imprisonment or detention (I'm thinking thumbscrews & waterboarding might be more effective as it goes) but can't somebody stop these gurgling giggling galoots gathering together after dark in their rehearsal rooms and recording studios, can't something be done once we've figured out bands have nothing to say to stop them saying it anymore? This whole decade of indie guitarring, when whittled down to only what is top pop quality extends as far as the first two Strokes albums, the first Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys singles, the Good Shoes & Vampire Weekend albums and what else? The decade of Oasis and Green Day if we're being real, the twin middle-aged millionaire perpetrators of GENERATIONS of damage to young hoaxed pop minds. That's a separate case to be brought to the European Court of Human Rights in due course but for now, for the next thirty minutes, don't worry about it is the message. The Finns have sorted it out for everyone. Don't they always?
See, I can't stop playing this Cats On Fire thing. It's not the greatest album of the year, probably - that'll be a toss up 'tween far hipper, more self-promoting outfits from nascent scenes across the planet. Cats On Fire are actually getting dissed on the internet for their lack of self-promotion, and the first thing people seem surprised by is that this be Finnish and doesn't sound like Darkthrone. If this record slips on by 2009 it'd fit, accidentally, with the sound and the songs - for these are special and precious and perhaps not for these times. For starters, you can hear them (a lot of what I'm about to say sounds like the kind of thing your mum and dad said about pop when you were a kid for which I can't apologise). No fog, only the fireworks that can happen between clean, pure unpedal-affected guitars and drums. Strong rhythms. Killer tunes. No new production tricks, a 50s radiance and shimmer with a 70s warmth and an 80s pose - down to what's important, and all is important. Needed at this groggy stage for rock - some purity of purpose linked with a purity of sound, some fucking balls, some proper dignified campness shot through ennui and standing up for a vintage cynicism, an unrequited endless love, a heroic warmth that's the coolest response to this cold dry age.
Right now who cares whether guitar music's being 'inventive' or 'innovative' enough? Cram all that doodaddery, guitar music needs to rediscover the art of songwriting again, wipe the slate clean, earn its right to piss about again ‘cos we're drowning in the lukewarm yellow stuff down here. And only what's noble and dignified is gonna save us, something that sinks in rather than sinks us in that fathomless portabog that noughties indierock has become. At times like these the clear and good-hearted stops being a tradition to kick against with confusion and aggression, starts becoming the real alternative to all the faux-extremity and frowning.
So on one level the perfectly-monikered Temperance Movement IS just 'some good songs'. And hallelujah, it will more than do. It's an album I love because it's so likable, possibly that likability wouldn't survive the perils of modern fame - but I hope Cats On Fire make it because they've made this and they deserve it. Tempted to toss it at first. The guys' voice was so Morrissey I felt furtive. But the band made it impossible to leave. Opener 'Tears In My Cup' throws down trump cards and silver with such controlled joy, the sound rich with a swing and punch that aren't pushy or perfect, just locked-on, confident, beautiful. In a flabby age where even the boiled down seems too loud Cats On Fire make the revolutionary leap of sounding just right, and hit all the right balances. It's a sound that's close but not forced down your throat. In the room but not petulantly raw. A sound informed by all sorts but somehow unique to the characters in this room and thus able to fly where the words take it. The sheer chest rush of 'Tears' masks its conciseness, how the gorgeous melodic ease (or the illusion of ease which is the neatest trick of all) from Ville Hoppenen's Fender gets the tune cleaved to the heart within a minute's exposure. Most miraculously, for the next 30 minutes and nine songs there was no fall-off, only new shapes of the same sweetness and fire, vocals that mattered, harmonies that mattered just as much. Even weirder, by the time I emerged dancing in the daze of a crush with guitar music again I was most in love with the man up front, the star who should be, dishy dreamboat Matthias Bjorkas.
He's gorgeous, which helps. Cats On Fire all look amazing as it happens. Very pretty, very fuckable. As pure eye-candy and heart-quickener Bjorkas twangs the same straps as the young Edwyn Collins, but if you can't pick your heart out of the lines he sings and the way he sings them you have my full permission to continue running the planet."Expel the Marxist ghost the cynical consumerist remains" he nails himself a minute in, thence come tales of misplaced arson ('Garden Lights') , the skewered precocity of "Letters From A Voyage To Sweden" (on deck amidst the meatheads and stag parties the teenage Bjorkas takes a fringe-hidden 'great pleasure in being right'), the wondrous 'Play With Fire'-feel of 'Never Sell The House', the Love-like 'A Steady Pace' ("you're not into art / The moment someone wants you to be / And I could leave you here / Tie my shoes and prance away") and the pre-Army Elvis stylings of 'Lay Down Your Arms' & 'Horoscope' ("We should have gone a long time ago / Now Sweden has drifted too far away / You come from a family who can afford to be eccentric / Go back and cry to them").
Throughout 'Temperance' the lyrics are male without being lairy, wonderfully & winningly fogyish as only the young can be and, okay I'm naming soundalikes, but Cats On Fire are a band smart enough to know nothing's original but the people putting it together. Bjorkas has a voice that you want to hear again and again because it can be more than one thing at a time: arch and witty without causing resentment, Lothario and feather lite, heartfelt & sentimental whilst still confident and convincing, because his voice has that thing, that real in-the-room/unreal beamed-in-from-Venus thing that makes your insides flip, that thing everyone in Cats On Fire plays to. And it's been a long fucking time man - you lot had the Smiths. I could never get over my prejudices with them. Vis-a-vis boy-guitar-pop, I've found something to listen to once 'Between The Buttons' has run out. Yeah, a long time. No filler because each of the ten songs here become killer at different times in your relationship with this record as it unfolds over the coming months. You want to spend time with it. You don't feel you ought to. And that's miraculous.
Miraculous. That a record so thoroughly traditional in sound never sounds like it's copped-off or desperate or over-stretching itself. For something just to be beautiful inside and out. That you're hearing a band neither hiding in distortion's familiar cushions or stroppily minimalising what needs oomph . That you're hearing a band uninterested in guiltily making moves on electronica's perfection and ironing out all nuance, a band careless about the testosterone and perma-tan and ruffled machismo and mithering sanctimony modern rock production offers with the tug of a knob. A guitar band only interested in making the best pop music they can. A band simply & naturally existing in their own sound in their own room at their own imperfect pace armed with songs worthy of such a four-man marvel. Let's avoid (as some unfortunates already haven't) hysterically tagging Cats On Fire as 'the rebirth of indie' like what's going on here is defibrillation. The corpse is gone - put the tag on the toe & close the draw. NO, what's going on here is truly beautifully great pop, pure and simple and jeez people, keep your voices down. Nobody let the bastards tromp in and spoil this, don't let it be corrupted by anything so vile as being on today's pulse Cats On Fire are smaller & way more important than that, too cherishable to give up to modern-pop's spectacular irritations and infections. Amidst the blather and blare of all those bills and gongs elsewhere, Our Temperance Movement, a guitar record free of cacophony, feels like the moment an entire genre can get over its inferiority & superiority complexes, and start genuinely competing with the best of pop again, start swimming in the same place as Britney & GA & Outkast & the important playaz who really own your days this decade. On the quiet like.
Of course I secretly hope it blows up like the godfather, to whit a quote for the ads: "Best Scandinavian pop album since Gran Turismo or Arrival" but let's make this youknowhat, and everyone else from Bowman to Wylie to Fearne and Vern and Conor and all those Marks and Alexes can just step the fuck OFF of something for a change. Not for you fuckers. For us starlets. So good it hurts your heart.
THE GUARDIAN 4th May 2012
A wet Wednesday night in London, and a handbag is repeatedly hitting us in the face. We don't care, because we're dancing – as is the handbagger – to the best pop music being made on the planet right now. The crew responsible for ramming out the steaming Bull and Gate is Finland's fantastic Cats on Fire, fondly loved in Europe yet virtually unknown in the UK, where they have difficulty even getting their records released.
That's odd, considering the three albums they've given us since 2007 do nothing less than reinject possibilities, politics, wit, erudition and joy into guitar pop. We're not just here, nose-to-nipple, because we love Cats on Fire, or because they also happen to be the best-looking band on Earth. We're here because 2007's The Province Complains contained 'I Am the White Mantled King', one of the greatest songs of this millennium; because 2009's Our Temperance Movement was the most pristinely perfect pop album seemingly no one but us ever heard; because this year's All Blackshirts to Me is, impossibly, even better. Cats on Fire are sleeping on someone's floor tonight. By rights, it should be the Queen's; by rights, as everyone here knows, they should be stars.
"I don't love music more than anything else," admits the lead singer and songwriter Mattias Bjorkas, "which means I haven't been blinded by the love of music. And I have certainly not been blinded by money. I was a very straight-edge, socialist youth – Cats on Fire has been my lesson in frustration and dealing with second-bests sometimes, but we try to always make the music move on and matter."
The five-piece has come together in fits and starts from the small, isolated town of Vaasa, sharpening and solidifying their magic every step of the way. "No music industry tentacles were long enough to reach as far up north as we were in Vaasa," Bkorkas says. "But trying to be loved was always my main preoccupation, whatever political or musical ideas I may have presented as the true spirit of Cats on Fire. I nurtured the idea of a small, provincial army that was musically righteous and ready to strike against the trendy, metropolitan hypocrisy."
All Blackshirts To Me is a fab mix of classic indie-pop shimmer, radiant cynicism, and joyously open-hearted wonder. Whether it's the strung-out doom of Our Old Centre Back ("But if you think I look good in a beret/ Then I'd be more than happy to be there and get the chance to say/ That art just imitates football"), the bittersweet honesty of My Sense of Pride ("I've been an idiot for years/ Now I speak in a lower voice to blend in/ And I try not to dress up queer"), or the stunning lullaby to old Europa that is 1914 and Beyond ("Greece don't pay your debts/ don't bother with the debts/ Iceland, go on and cover us in ashes"), Cats on Fire seemingly can't help making indie-pop matter again.
They make songs you can't shake and write lyrics that stop your day in its tracks, the sound exquisitely puckered throughout by Ville Hopponen's addictive licks, Iiris Viljanen's poptastic keyboards, and the band's sheer stealth and grace. The last time you felt this way about indie-pop was Pulp. Yeah – that good. Judging by tonight's rapturous reception, it's only their own shyness that's stopping Cats on Fire becoming major stars.
"In big cities," Bjorkas says, "we observe all the other groups of four or five people with good haircuts, unable to shake the worst thought of all – that each of these 10,000 bands had an idea as valid as our own."
They don't. Not by a long chalk. European album of the year. Avail yourselves immediately.
CATS ON FIRE
ALL BLACKSHIRTS TO ME
*first appeared on Collapseboard*
“But if you think I look good in a beret/Then I’d be more than happy to be there and get the chance to say/That art just imitates football” – ‘Our Old Centre Back’.
Gawwshucks, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit at my age but I’m in love. I don’t just love this album, or the band who made it. You throw love at products. This isn’t a product, it gives you too much. This is the only true masterpiece I’ve heard in two years and I’m IN love, head over heels, and as with any infatuation all the clichés reveal their truth fresh again, all the pangs of heart and soul become reanimated, you remember how pop can go beyond matching your thoughts and actually start transcribing your pulse, your precarious balance between hope and despair, resignation and aggravation. I thought pop music in this agile, ADHD age would never make me feel like this again, obsessed, living and loving and lurching and lounging in these songs to the exclusion of all else. But All Blackshirts To Me is one of those records that simply won’t become background, is impossible to live with rather than live within, a record you’d be a prick to ignore. And I can’t help but be alternately evangelical & furious because it illuminates truth like holy fire and couldn’t even find a label to release itself on over here. I can’t just be happy I own it and leave it at that and hope you dig it too, I NEED to press this fantastic plastic, this concrete chimerical CLASSIC into your lives right fkn now. Because I give huge fucks about you hearing it, because time is short, and there’s a world to win.
Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on his youth: “I was an extremist. I was convinced that nothing good could ever come from sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll. For me, the only way forward was Straight edge, Socialism and Zoloft. I guess it goes without saying that I couldn’t really have it my way. And so is the history of Cats On Fire, from my point of view, a history of dealing with second bests, pale shadows, budget solutions and endless, endless frustration. Eight and a half years, for what? I don’t love music more than anything else, which means I haven’t been blinded by the love of music. And I have certainly not been blinded by money. So what remains for me to be blinded by then?”
Must admit, I was worried about All Blackshirts To Me. Cats On Fire’s last LP Our Temperance Movement was such a bolt from the blue, such a pristine and perfect shot of joy to the head I couldn’t see how it could be topped, worried when I heard the band were ‘dissatisfied’ with Temperance and wanted the music to get ‘deeper’. Needn’t have worried – yes the music here has more shade and suggestion than Temperance’s straight-ahead popgasmic bliss, but c’mon, it’s been two years, two years in which the continent’s collapse has got worse, two years in which glimpses of love, feeling the sun on your face, has become even more of a struggle to attain. Cats On Fire aren’t a band that can ignore the world. Their music is intimately connected with what it means to be alive right now, the evil deals and blessed bargains you have to make on a daily basis to retain your sanity. They are that most impossible and rare of things: a guitar band that matters, that doesn’t see pop as either pure escape or agglomeration of borrowed moments of past-meaning. They give pop it’s true due, by refusing to create songs that are just songs, only making music if it touches you on all levels, speaks across the room to you with no dumb-down or posture. That’s why All Blackshirts becomes music you don’t use, but that uses you, music to live with, music to make life feel tangibly different. This is its true revelation and revolution. All Blackshirts isn’t just a collection of great songs. It’s a model of thought and life. It raises your standards as you listen and does it through joy, harmonies and words that resonate with a continental-sized clamour. Music that fkn MATTERS again. And that you can sing along to.
All Blackshirts swings with the lightness and finesse of a band looking in on the heat and chaos of auld Europa from a position of glacial remove. Right in the middle of the album is this song, ‘1914 And Beyond’, a song quite unlike any other I’ve heard this year, full of words and melody, all of it astonishing. New member Iiris Viljanen’s keyboards are weighted perfectly ‘tween ballad and nursery rhyme (the addition of female backing vocals has also added exactly what COF needed vocally, harmonies even clearer and crystalline than they were before), Mattias’ words a searing look at everywhere we’ve been and where the drift onward might go, “Greece don’t pay your debts/Don’t bother with the debts/ Iceland, go on and cover us in ashes/Don’t let the parting upset you/Cos we will meet again”. It’s a breathtaking, elegiac, weighty thing for a song to attempt, let alone carry off, the kind of poetic ambition and political bite you thought had been written out of ‘our’ music. Helps as well that COF are finally sounding effortless, natural, whole – not that previous albums didn’t have moments like that, but they became albums with highlights you went for. All Blackshirts is one big highlight. You find yourself clicking the repeat button and living in it for days.
Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on where they’ve been: “The Cosy Den club in Bergsjön, Gothenburg, was the work of a madman. We played in that shared apartment on the first club night in the summer of 2004, and we played there on the last, in November 2005. By then, Mattias Jansson had already realized that in the long run, it wasn’t a good idea to run a club night in your living room and that he had to move. I could’ve told him, because when the second toilet was a funnel with a pipe that went into the first toilet, you simply know. But these nights serve as fine examples: there was no money and no promises of anything bigger. There were anxiety attacks and bad equipment. But in that crammed apartment, there was also football-style sing-a-long, and my heart, melting.”
Throughout, All Blackshirts is a reminder of exactly what a band can do with pop, exactly how pop is the form that can be the most revolutionary music in your life, can do things politically and melodically and lyrically and sonically – SIMULTANEOUSLY. There’s an extra layer of suggestion going on in COF’s sound now, a fuller sense of space and silence that makes the moments when the band fully flowers truly heart stopping, skin-puckering. Always contact-high addictive-licks from Ville Hopponen but where previously his precision had sounded almost TOO perfect to be true, here his playing’s allowed to live and breathe, the machinery allowed to hum and frazzle a little, a tactile sense of space and atmosphere immediately THERE as soon as each song starts. My highlight, ‘Rise & Fall’ is just exquisite, barely there, a tiny fold of a song which opens up the vastness of the vistas within us all, a heroic song, a thoughtful walk in the rain and wind captured, the ache and glow of our defeats and convictions evoked with chest-thrumming delicacy – last time around COF wouldn’t have known how to end it, here they end it in a beaming girder of Talk Talk-style noise that works beautifully. A band finally moved by songs, not the other way around. You’ll feel proud to even know this record exists. You’ll get the same evangelical bug I have, the feel that people need arming with this, the faint disbelief that people can cope with life without it.
“From what I gather you are still in his command/This is what I try to understand/I remember last march when you were in Madrid/I admit I left no stone unturned” – ‘The Sea Within You’
And crucially, pop stompers throughout. MODERN pop stompers. They’ve made a record that performs that ace trick of sounding like it couldn’t have come from any time but right now, but with songs that touch you, that become part of you in a way you didn’t think your modern agility could countenance anymore. Sources are there if you wanna spoil the show but you realise the irrelevance as you list them, realise how much more than the sum of parts All The Blackshirts is, realise how massively more than music is going on (e.g ‘After The Fact’, if you’re looking, is the sound of Postcard, the sound of ‘Nite Flites’, the sound of ‘Sulk’, the sound of ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ AND of course, the sound of none of those things. It’s a Cats On Fire song). Bjorkas’ voice is crucial – first time I heard it I nearly (god, it scares me now to think of it) ditched ‘em cos it sounded like Morrissey. That was just my arsehole prejudice though: Bjorkas’ voice does things Moz couldn’t dream of, carries his accent clearly, tightropes between yearning and indolence, somehow remains utterly bereft of affectation but wobbles and breaks in ways that skewer your heart more than any showier theatrics could ever manage. And he’s written the best songs he’s ever writ for that voice – in the lazy discipline, in the way COF have pulled together to make this, by the time you’re through to the supra-spectral psaltery of ‘Finnish Lace’ that new focus they seem to have starts feeling heroic, unique, entirely at odds with COF’s status as obscure Finnish ‘indie-rock’ band.
Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on where he is now: “So, keep up? Wind down? Soldier on, push through? Give in? Slide along? Or go under, happy ever after?”
So far Cats On Fire’s audience has been the proudly schmindie, the shuffling, the twee. Utterly fkn wrong. Time for us normal stars to claim them as our own. No band on earth is being as clear, as suggestive, as nip-stiffeningly righteous in sound and word and vision right now.
S’too short, this existence malarkey. We should only be letting music in that makes it different, better, fresher, new. Music that says, onwards, that feels like company, consolation for life. European album of the year. Get it, live it, love it.