The Cat Empire So Many Nights

[Velour Music; 2008]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: a happy synthesis of Latin, jazz, funk, reggae, and hip-hop
Others: Sublime, Quantic Soul Orchestra, Xavier Ruddv

You may remember Midnight Oil for that persistent political Best Of The '80s mixtape pick "Beds Are Burning," but that's prolly about it. But Midnight Oil are practically on equal footing with U2 in their native Australia, with eight albums cracking the Top Ten and lead singer Peter Garrett now sitting as Environment Minister for the Labor Party. Likewise, the dependable Cat Empire are next to unknown outside of level-four-or-higher hippie circles in North America, but they're already multi-platinum sellers several times over down under. In fact, So Many Nights sold three million units worldwide before hitting the U.S. market, immediately rising to the top of the ARIA charts upon its release late last year. Still, sad as it is, I can't see their latest and arguably greatest changing that situation much.

Recorded and mixed by John Porter (who twiddled knobs for a good portion of The Smiths' and Roxy Music's catalogs), So Many Nights is easily their best-produced record yet. Porter captures with eerie precision the vibrant energy of Cat Empire's unique Latin, dub, funk, jazz, and rap fusion, possibly to better effect than seeing them live for yourself. That, combined with a completely new batch of fresh songs that show a touch of maturity without forsaking the bubbly charm that earned them their vicious following, quite possibly makes this their richest and most complete work yet.

Their many influences still reign, and they haven't forgotten the fun. Yet the vibe seems a little more intense than usual. Perhaps the iron-fisted rule of conservatives in Canada, the U.S., and Australia (till the Labor Party took power a couple months after this album hit stores) was starting to wear on them. They only let the nasal cheer of trumpeter Harry James Angus take the lead on three songs, which tips their hat in that direction. I actually find his voice sweetly endearing, but Felix Reibl is certainly easier to take seriously, so that influences the aesthetic.

"Til The Ocean Takes Us All" is one of the most moving tracks here. Featuring a balance of Harry and Felix, they draw a line between true love and fossil fuel-facilitated global warming that works surprisingly well, without going cheesy on either extreme. The instrumental rests on a reggae groove based in guitar and organ, going baroque hippie Muse for the pivotal chorus. Bless Harry's emotive howling there. At the very least, he made me believe, and maybe not dread our impending environmental apocalypse so much. At least there'll be fireworks, eh?

Naturally, the opening title track is essential. The Rick James organ is tasty and the string-scratching puts the hip-hop-cum-funk over the top. Later on, "No Longer There" lets a little country peek up through its elegant piano graces, folksy guitar, and uplifting brass. They've never been a big singles band, but the album's highlights certainly hit par compared to their previous work.

Genre classification is pointless with The Cat Empire. Certain tracks may be more heavily influenced by a particular style, but their aesthetic defies pigeonholing. They're like the Australian UN; they have a balance of everything, but So Many Nights won't be making them any more prevalent in North America. However, it certainly establishes them as a career band worldwide, being their best album yet through and through, and the first not to recycle older material. They aren't going anywhere till the ocean takes us all, so you'd better get used to it.

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