I wanted to write a love song, ay
But the nighttime sun say it’s time for play
If these two eyes could make a sound
Then this is what they’d say…
-The Cat Empire, “Wanted to Write a Love Song”
So I was preparing to talk about another musical act for my debut Artist Spotlight, but it was becoming long and emotional (and the third artist I have in mind will be even more so…). So here’s just a band that I think is cool. Enjoy!
PS. It will also be music-heavy, because if you’re anything like me that’s the first thing you gravitate to in unfamiliar Artist Spotlights. So I hope you find something you’ll like!
If you’ve been following my posts here at The Avocado, you know I love talking about music. But my musical tastes are, as a rich man once said, unconventional… I tend to cross genres (yes, even country & hip-hop) and not subscribe to a band or artist’s hype–unless I make it myself. What matters most to me is if the music has life. If it takes you on a journey away from your ordinary surroundings.
From the moments I first encountered it, I had a thing for “world music” for the reasons listed above. I was introduced to the streetwise, Spanish-speaking Frenchman Manu Chao my freshman year of college, Israeli pop star Sarit Hadad my sophomore year, local Australian speed-funk band National Pornographic while studying abroad there the 1st semester of my junior year, and then the Empire–whose sound is described on Wikipedia as “a fusion of jazz, ska, funk and rock with heavy Latin influences”–during my 2nd semester there. It was early-2004 and the Melbourne sextet’s self-titled major debut had just come out, but I found their independent release The Sun from 2002 on the campus file-sharing network and decided to listen to that first. And that wound up being the album that changed my life, becoming my all-time favorite.
Especially this song, and this line:
“And my ears are wearing headphones that do play my favorite songs
Not music I’m told to like but the songs that make me dance along.”
To this day, it’s the only album to which I know every word, every contour. But The Sun is much more jazz-influenced & low-key than what came later. It is to their self-titled as Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book is to Songs in the Key of Life.1 What Portal is to Portal 2. Yet they complimented each other well and times were good.
I was loving life in the buzzing, tropical city of Brisbane, far from my sleepy suburban college town–not to mention relishing being out of the country at the peak of the Iraq War.2 It was the first time in my adult life that I was able to define myself by what I am instead of what I’m not—as cliché as that sounds. And this band became a large part of the soundtrack.
–oh, let me introduce them. Vocal duties are split between the suavé Felix Riebl3 & more-everyman-like Harry Angus, who play percussion & trumpet respectively (Harry also leads the Empire Horns). Ollie McGill plays keyboard and was a key component in their early sound (and for some reason always looks constipated when he plays). The rhythm section comprises Jamshid “Jumps” Khadiwala on turntable & additional percussion, Will Hull-Brown on drums and Ryan Monro on bass—both upright & guitar. Felix, Ollie & Ryan were the founding members. The bond between them is strong–as they will proudly tell you themselves:
Well, I came back home to central-Pennsylvania for my senior year of college and life quieted down.4 But as it so happens a year later the band came through my hometown for a free show to promote the US release of their next album! Here’s how that looked (click on the photos for larger versions):
I’m also usual in that my exposure to them was almost exclusively through recorded and live music. Without music videos–and largely cut off from the Australian music press–nothing matters except how the music makes you feel.
With that in mind, I’ll breeze over the rest of their discography & showcase highlights from each album:
Two Shoes (2005): recorded in Havana, Cuba at a time when the US Embargo was still in full-effect. The setting informed the Latin-flavored “In My Pocket” and “Sol y Sombra” (Sun & Shade), as well as the downtrodden ballad “Misere”. 5 The groovy “Lullaby” and Blues Brothers-esque “Car Song” are showcases for Felix & Harry respectively.6 The title track appears here re-recorded with a new breakdown & outro, which I don’t like personally.
“The Car Song” video has nothing to do with the song at all–or does it?
Cities: The Cat Empire Project (2006): Originally a limited release, but now available digitally. Described as “a tribute to our own city and an experiment in sounds that we’ve found abroad,” It sees the band expanding their sound with electric guitar, backup singers & other embellishments. “Song for the Day” below, re-recorded from The Sun, has such a large reggae sound and I love it.
So Many Nights (2007): Produced by John Porter (The Smiths, B.B. King, Buddy Guy), I see it as a largely-mellower, potentially more-mainstream album. Or maybe my opinions were guided by the opening title track, about a man trying to change his look for a upper-class girl. I also think this marks a period of self-indulgence for Harry, whose lyrics get increasingly preachy and his scat-singing increasingly prolonged on both this and their Live on Earth album, recorded during their world tours following this release.
Nonetheless, his “Lonely Moon” has message that needs hearing, while Felix’s “No Longer There” has a green aesop.7 And there are moments of joy & release too. “Sunny Moon” and “Radio Song” will sound instantly familiar to long-time fans.
Cinema (2010): so named because of its largely-darker subject matter; Felix’s contributions basically form a break-up album and Harry has one love & one anti-love song. In addition to those below, other highlights include “Falling” and the single “Feeling’s Gone”.
Steal the Light (2013): This was their first wholly-independent album, under their Two Shoes label. The infusion of fresh energy is evident–aided by producer Jan Skubiszewski. Jumps’ work on the turntable gets expanded out into samples. Harry’s “Wild Animals” and “Go” see his tendency for preachiness used for good and ill respectively.
Rising with the Sun (2016): I see it as an extension of Steal the Light–not that that’s a bad thing. It was their first album to reach #1 in Australia since Two Shows 8 and debuted at #9 on the global iTunes chart.
So that brings us up to date. They took some time off this year & last, but they say they’re working on new music & recently released a new single. They’re not the same people they were at the start, but then again, neither am I. But some things never change:
So thank you my dear friends, and that’s goodnight.