Cats in the Caribbean

When some bands are looking to channel their influences, they intensely study a stack of records. Others concentrate on deriving influence from one or two albums that they find to have the most impact or similarity to what they are trying to sound like. Their goal, of course, is that the feeling and vibe of their favorite classic albums will come through in their own music.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when Austrialian jazz-rock-latin fusion outfit The Cat Empire sought to take full advantage of their Cuban influences, they didn’t throw on a pair of headphones and over-analyze an album or two; they went to Cuba.

It sounds like a pilgrimage, and maybe it is; but they’re not going to take themselves that seriously. So what was it that drew them to Cuba? The phenomenal local music? The beaches? Drummer Will Hull-Brown summed it right up in an e-mail interview with The Hatchet; “Hey, there’s no Starbucks or McDonalds there.”

But isolation from fast-food aside, to capture the sound that they wanted, they packed up and moved to Havana for a month of intense recording sessions. They settled on the legendary Estudio 101, the studio made famous through The Buena Vista Social Club’s 1997 album and documentary. It was the studio’s unique sound and atmosphere that drew them in. “It’s such a warm, rich, open and live sound because the room is big and wooden,” he said. “Sometimes smoking a cigar before doing a take would help set the vibe.”

What emerged was “Two Shoes” (Velour), a rollicking, unpredictable album that highlights The Cat Empire’s startlingly unique group of musicians. Due to their size, they are easily categorized as a ska or latin band, but their sound tells a very different story. The intense combination – copious percussion, a DJ, a powerful horn section (think James Brown), a reedy-voiced singer and a quick-tongued rapper (think G. Love and Special Sauce, not Kid Rock) – has been converting fans around the globe.

The Cat Empire built their ravenous fan base in Europe and Australia based on years of relentless touring; in recent years they have taken their live show to America, and so far, they seem to like it.

“After talking to a lot of locals it seems to me like we’re a breath of fresh [air] here,” said Hull-Brown. “Maybe that’s because there is so much rock, country and R&B here. You guys don’t seem to go as crazy as some Europeans do though, you seem to listen more than dance.”

Their world travels have taken them to just about every corner of the globe, and their worldliness is decidedly represented in their music. But despite counting a French and German speaker in their ranks, they find that their globetrotting ways can get them stuck behind a language barrier. “If we’re in Japan or Spain, then we can’t really say much between songs.”

The intensity of their live show is well-represented on “Two Shoes”; the album flows from song to song, slipping in and out of genres as it goes. The leadoff track (and the album’s first single) “Sly,” pairs pop sensibility with their trademark horn-heavy sound. From there, it drops into the sliding groove of “In My Pocket,” and before the album is over, explores soulful grooves and hooks (title track “Two Shoes”), dives deep into Cuban jazz (“Sol y Sombra”) and dishes out huge harmonies on the reggae-tinged “Saltwater.”

Their lyrics range from hilarious to confusing to hilarious and confusing. In “The Car Song,” the heavy Aussie accent of vocalist Felix Riebl takes us on a chronological journey from grade school to the present, as he laments his fifth grade crush being swept away by a nerd he used to give wedgies to “because he worked too hard.” Now, it turns out, this nerd is a lawyer with a Porsche. On the frank and hilarious “Protons, Neutrons, Electrons,” they address such varied topics as our chemical makeup (see title), eating KFC, and sex change operations.

But despite their eccentric lyrics, don’t confuse them for a bunch of inexperienced musicians. The instrumental prowess that shows up all over “Two Shoes” comes through loud and clear during their live shows, and makes for an experience not to be missed.

The Cat Empire will perform at The State Theater in Falls Church, Va. on Saturday. Tickets are $17. Their album “Two Shoes” is available now on Velour Records.

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