A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Catalina Shortwave, a “hardscrabble group of New England musicians”, represent what is great about lo-fi rock and roll, as well as it’s shortcomings.
In his infamous text Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx talked about how (and i paraphrase) “those who own the means of production” rule the society.
For the majority of the existence of the “recording industry”, the musical society was ruled by the major labels, PR people, venue and studio owners, producers and engineers. There were always hopefuls, who felt that they had something to say, that were weeded out due to the natural meritocracy of capitalism and the music industry. This is like the musical equivalent of running away to Hollywood to get discovered and star in the pictures. And, of course, as everybody knows, there can be only one Marilyn Monroe, and 10,000 shattered dreams and lives that never got off the ground.
When the lo-fi home recording boom started in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it ushered in a new era of artistic freedom, offering up personal stories and strange dreams, too subtle or too strange to make it through the corporate music meat grinder. The freedom and access to information, and the availability of cheap instruments and recording technology, has let the genie out of the bottle, unleashing private lives and a million personal permutations to take the public arena. There is much more artistic inspiration and innovation, but there is an unhallowed din, as everybody and their mother is shouting for yr attention, for their slice of the pie, for their shot at the top.
Catalina Shorthand are a little bit of both. On one hand, to hear a real working band, taking their earliest steps is thrilling and exciting. Listening to Repeater on repeat is like watching a bands fledgling moments, in time-elapsed fast forward. The down side of doing everything yrself is that there is no outside ears or opinions, to help you sculpt the ultimate transmission, which is what every musician really wants.
CS stick mainly to a sort of glam proto boogie rock ‘n roll. I was reminded most strongly of T. Rex‘s Marc Bolan, and early Bowie, before the alien, particularly on the first two tracks, “Don’t Never Take Your Love Away” and “Anne Boleyn”. A good majority of Repeater brings to mind the stripped-down, efficient rock ‘n roll of early ZZ Top and even the first couple of The White Stripes records. This is when the record is most successful, like on the third track “Make It Through The Night”.
Repeater gets better as it goes along. It’s also an album that speaks to the power of writing ABOUT music, as well as the music itself. I was completely primed to hate this record, when album opener “Don’t Never Take” comes in, like Hootie & The Blowfish Darius Rucker fronting Bon Jovi‘s backing band. I’m not much for this kind of faux Jersey Americana, plus the drums sound like a basic Ringo backbeat, beat out on wet cardboard. Not a strong contender for album opener of the year. If i were listening for enjoyment, i would’ve stopped right here, and never looked back. But seeing as how this is my job, i listen to every submission and contribution carefully, even if it is only to offer some constructive feedback or criticism. If anything, I learn something every time.
Then i read the lines, “This band defies genres and has a authentic, real, heartfelt sound that will grab you. The sound and lyrics are raw and unfiltered,” from the website VERYCOOLTUNES, and i mellowed a bit. I liked the second track “Anne Boleyn” quite a bit better, which is suprisingly different than the album opener. Where “Don’t Never” sounds like some generic cowboy pop, “Anne Boleyn” is a cosmopolitan love song to the queen of England. It seems that different people sing on different tracks, and i like the singer on “Anne Boleyn” a great deal better than the first. His voice has the chilly romance of David Sylvain or John Foxx, which better matches the mood of the song. That’s the problem with some of the material on Repeater, the delivery doesn’t match the content. It seems flat, detached, the idea of a rock ‘n roll song, rather than a vivid and visceral expression of something real and personal.
This gets better and better, as the album goes along. The pieces start to fall together, and work cohesively, rather than seeming a bunch of disparate and unrelated parts. The drumming gets more varied and intricate, and gradually gets louder and punchier in the mix. Ditto that for the bass. Guitar licks start to dovetail and highlight the vocals, providing emphasis and a feeling of tightness, like the band knows what they’re doing, as on “Naturally”.
The guitars are probably my favorite thing about this record. They range from chiming acoustics to raging psychedelic chorused and flanged lead. The songs work better when they leave more room for the instruments to breathe and rock out, as the earlier songs are insanely wordy, with only a spare feel here and there. I hope next time they opt to mic the acoustics, as most of them sound plugged in, straight from the guitar’s pick-up, which has a cheap, tinny, and brittle sound quality, to these ears. Next time, ask the engineer (or ask to borrow), a large diaphragm condenser microphone, and mic the guitar about 6 inches from the soundhole, or the 12th fret. It makes a world of difference for the warmth and intimacy of an acoustic.
For a band billing themselves as “lo-fi”, the beginning of Repeater sounds surprisingly typical, like the idea of outlaw country. So while “Wintersong”, which is every bit as Americana as the rest of the record’s hard-drinking-down-on-yr-luck weepy country blues, with it’s evocation of small-town life, buried beneath the drifts. But there is a warmth and a realness, as he describes life at a small diner, with Jimmy flipping burgers and Jenny saying hi, and a drinking mechanic that curses yr name, but always smiles when he pulls you out of the snowbanks. The music manages to reflect the cozy sensation of being inside, hearthside, by the glowing embers, as cold and brutal winds howl and rage outside. Layers of guitars stack up on top of each other, like humid air inside a cabin.
Catalina Shortwave are most successful when they are actually BEING lo-fi, subscribing less to the idea of what it means to be country or rock ‘n roll, and just being them. Be yrselves. Play yr instruments. Rock out! Be honest. Write from the heart. Never stop striving.
There is a heart and a potential to this music, that i’m curious to watch the band hone and cultivate. There’s no telling who the next Rolling Stones will be, so you’ve got to keep looking!
Favorite Tracks: Anne Boleyn, Running On Vapor, Naturally, Wintersong
Get A Copy: Repeater