Hearing Cats And Cats And Cats’ album Mother Whale for the first time, it’s tempting to draw the conclusion that it’s their debut; a self-conscious effort to assert their individualism, to supply talking points and hold the listener’s attention at all costs permeates the album and overshadows their undeniable musical ability.
The first two tracks show the band at their best. Speckled Eggs For Speckled Lovers is a brief and likeable folk fanfare, after which they launch into the album proper with Return To Danger Castle, the frenetic drums, brass parping and ramshackle mass singalongs giving it an epic quality not unlike Titus Andronicus. The reference to “the broadest shoulders” in O’ Science brings our all-seeing indie-folk overlord Sufjan Stevens to mind, but the song develops into a rollicking rhapsody with real originality, its disjointed parts glued together by the chorus’ infectious paean to reason.
The vocal delivery is destined to divide opinion – either the Auto-Tune machine was on strike during the recordings, or a deliberate decision was made to leave Ben George’s voice slightly off-key to lend a untamed and spontaneous air to proceedings. They would get away with it too, but it just doesn’t hold water when so much effort has clearly been put into the album’s other components. Somehow it’s not quite credible to sing like a drunk between second and third daily vomits one minute, then hurtle into an instrumental jam with enough time signatures to give Biffy Clyro a headache the next. The woman warbling through her guest spot on Christmas Lions does little to help matters, except providing a refreshing new way to irritate.
On top of this, the constant unexpected shifts in pace and genre, like a kind of fey System Of A Down, and the attention-seeking quirkiness, make Mother Whale a difficult album to warm to. A Song For My Mother, The Whale ends with the words “a bale of hay”, which then morph into a barbershop quartet of echoing a capella “hey!”s, before a manic laugh marks the beginning of The Seaweed Brother. The Projectionist’s accordion-led waltz features a monkey impression for no discernible reason. It reeks of insecurity, of a fear that their songs aren’t interesting enough on their own merits. Yet there is a core of genuine talent and imagination beneath the bothersome attention seeking. It’s like eating a beautifully baked cupcake with an extravagant garlic frosting.
It’s difficult to say on first listen exactly when Mother Whale becomes tiresome. Certainly it’s well before 10-minute closer Come Home staggers into a quagmire of repetition and distortion. But on subsequent listens, when the novelty charm offensive has worn off, it’s tiresome right from the start.