August 2, 2010
In a typewritten note tucked within each copy of the first White Town 7", self-released in 1990, leader Jyoti Mishra is very specific about his aims. "We want to create music that will make you want to dance, cry, sing, laugh, music that elevates, depresses, and declaims," he wrote. "Not just some form of aural wallpaper or something to try and impress your friends, but something you understand and that understands you." Setting aside any questions about a record's powers of comprehension, that modest manifesto sounds a lot like the goals of plenty of indie pop today, too.
Cats on Fire cover White Town's fluke 1997 hit, "Your Woman", to open the 20-track odds-and-sods compilation Dealing in Antiques. By the time White Town released the track, Mishra was working solo, and his bedroom-produced gender-bender was recognizable in part by a horn sample that some people used to guess (wrongly) came from the Star Wars theme. These four Finns do it the way Mishra & co. might have a few years earlier, stripping the dancefloor-friendly arrangement down to sun-splashed post-C86 guitars, bass, and drums. Dapper Cats on Fire frontman Mattias Björkas' drowsy, eternally Mozzy warble barely resembles Mishra's field-mouse hush, and it's a deftly executed cover, but beyond that, it can't really do better than the original at making people dance, cry, sing, or laugh, at elevating, depressing, or declaiming. And that's the point, isn't it?
Dealing in Antiques is rewarding and disappointing in much the same ways as its first track. Coming after 2007 debut The Province Complains and 2009 follow-up Our Temperance Movement, each warmly received in indie-pop circles, the current collection reaches as far back as a 2002 demo, bringing together out-of-print B-sides and EP cuts as well as unreleased material from the intervening years. The tracks show that Cats on Fire's jangling style has been in place since early on, that the intimacy of a home recording suits their bedsit songwriting, and that they perform their songs with precision. If you like Felt, Orange Juice, or the Orchids, you'll probably like the sound of this. In that sense, it's a shame New York City Popfest had its The New York Times moment in 2010 rather than last year or the year before, when Cats on Fire were there.
On Dealing in Antiques, however, no matter how tasteful or well-played, the songs eventually start to blur together-- it'd make exquisite aural wallpaper, no kidding, but as indie pop, the compilation leaves some room for improvement. Björkas is prone to cramming ill-fitting syllables into his verses to make awkward rhymes work (see "Crooked Paper Clip", especially, or "Stars"). And the occasional jaunty uptempo number, piano part, or female backing vocal amid all the minor-key strums does little to separate the bookish-pop wheat from its chaff here. Then again, as with American contemporaries Pants Yell!, Cats on Fire are all about subtle understatement, and devotees will surely lose themselves in the ambiguities of like-not-love song "Never Land Here", the ironic twists of snob send-ups "On His Right Side" and "The Smell of an Artist", the shy neurosis of "Something Happened", the nuanced doublespeak of "Solid Work", the funny romantic near-miss of "Your Treasure".
Besides "Your Woman", the only other new recording here is "The Hague", and even that one originally appeared earlier this year on The Matinée Grand Prix label comp. "These are my ideals," Björkas croons, over a delicately pretty acoustic guitar with walking bass lines. "If you don't like them, I might have to change them." If Cats on Fire's ideals are at all like White Town's 20 years ago, Dealing in Antiques shows the group is well on its way to achieving them, but they'll have to move further beyond nostalgia-- and, dare I say, bring their charms higher up out of the 1980s-scented decor-- in order to get all the way there.