Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cats On Fire "All Blackshirts To Me" (Matinée Recordings): Fukpig "3" (Devizes Studio)

Believe me, we've been hunting assiduously for a way to concoct a concatenation between these two LPs we've been enjoying recently. The best we can come up with is to say that they are both third albums by bands from northern Europe whose names involve the unspeakable treatment of animals: but we can't help feeling that rather undersells the music on offer.

When listening to carefully curated Cats on Fire catch-up "Dealing In Antiques" in 2010, the phrase "sophisticated sea shanties" came to mind, and we haven't been able to shake it since. And as "All Blackshirts To Me" amply proves, the kernel of CoF's increasing appeal is that while on the one hand they archly deploy deeply post-modernist alternative popskills, glistening with irony and layering and the odd soaring hook, on the other they're increasingly leavening proceedings with arrangements and instrumentation that seem to reflect a folk tradition, a simpler and less cynical age. Plus, as we've become pretty familiar with maps of Finland recently (grindcore research purposes, mainly) we know that Vaasa is a coastal town, so now we're hearing a maritime ebb and flow to everything they do.

The flaming felines' latest offering pivots between nod-and-a-wink intelligent pop in the vein of Edwyn, Mozza or any number of 70s-80s classicists ("After The Fact" could have been written by Elvis Costello, and would set the FM dial positively aglow, while the charming narratives of opening salvos "Our Old Centre-Back" and "My Sense Of Pride" see the Cats filing their formal claim to inherit the Lucksmiths' formidable mantle as lyrically-dextrous storytellers supreme), and set-pieces of thoughtful artistic whimsy (the outstanding "1914 And Beyond" manages to teach us a piano-led lesson from 98 years of European history). Elsewhere, "It's Clear Your Former Lover" manages to live up to what must be the title of the year. Only on the (possibly) populist-baiting "Smash It To Pieces" do things feel a little workaday, a touch throwaway.

For us the twin peaks of the record, which illustrate just how powerful a proposition the Cats have become, are "A Different Light" and "A Few Empty Waves". The former is as close as CoF come to the plaintive, reach-for-the-sky pop of Matinée labelmates Northern Portrait, but lyrically it's darker (this is where the blackshirts come in), with Mattias' narration wringing maximum effect from some well-marshalled ambiguity. The latter is very different: a widescreen maritime pop hit, with traces of Morrissey's finest solo work, that rides the tide of the Gulf of Bothnia with gutsy aplomb. Followed only by dulcet instrumental closer "Finnish Lace", "Empty Waves" is effectively the suitably grande finale to a smart and stylish album.

Now, a question. Does the world really need another band modelled on Extreme Noise Terror, circa 1987/1988 ? Like you, we think the answer is probably yes, and right now second-city snarlers Fukpig are that band. Their last set, "Belief Is The Death Of Intelligence" got us through the royal wedding, so we're banking on "3" to see us through the diamond jubilee. The title shows they've taken a typically direct route to acknowledging third album syndrome, although we also like to think it's a tribute to the third wave of punk (hint: the third wave of punk was never *called* the third wave of punk), which that incarnation of ENT were a part of.

"3" starts a little splutteringly, but by the time fourth track "Mean World" gets going, they seem to have ironed out the creases in time to embark on the kind of thrilling-spree that we can just imagine having fired up the Ipswich Caribbean Centre back in the day, supplemented by the strangely eerie veneer of the trademark Fp 'choral keyboard' sound. And while there is plenty of anger in Duncan Wilkins' hollered, throat-straining vocals, it's certainly not (always) directionless anger: not only is there the well-established Fukpig tableau of lambasting organised religion (witness the veritably bristling "Archaic Beliefs" & the even finer "In The Absence Of Your Saviour"), or berating the usual village idiots ("Fascist Moron"), but last summer's riots and the hacking scandal come into scope, along with an obvious despair over how a lack of education can brew violence and aggression, before things end with the scabrous, yet genuinely mournful clamour of "The Eulogy Of A Crushed Romantic". "3", therefore, is at turns uplifting, messy, enervating and emotional. Like life, frankly.

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