I don’t know if you’ve scanned this year’s NYC Popfest line-up but it’s pretty impressive, with Comet Gain, L Mag faves Allo Darlin’, The Wave Pictures, 90s twee power poppers The Pooh Sticks, and White Town (yes Your Woman White Town) just to name a few. Yet every year when it’s announced I’m looking for one name: Cats on Fire. The Finnish band played back-to-back Fests in 08 and 09, and were belles of the ball both times, with their immaculately arpeggiated indiepop and frontman Mattias Bjorkas’ onstage dance moves.
No luck this year, again, but there is a consolation prize. Cats on Fire’s third album, All Blackshirts to Me, is out this week and it’s their most varied, accomplished work to date. Where previous albums wore their indiepop influences (Smiths, Felt, Orange Juice) on the sleeves of their cardigans, the band have found their own sound that nods at the past without being indebted to it. It’s also the their mellowest record, and most minor-key melancholic.
The downcast vibe suits Bjorkas’ lyrics, which are generally bitter, politically-motivated and often bitingly funny. He knows his way around a turn of phrase (“You mistook me for the painter at the private view / I was merely standing in the champagne queue”) and his contempt for those who tow the line, conform and keep their voices down, allowing themselves to be pushed around by various bullies (governments, corporations, local fascist organizations) comes through loud and clear. In a delicate jangly kind of way.
Like all good protest singers, Bjorkas delivers his medicine with a spoonful of sugar. While the album contains fewer of the kind of jaunty numbers that get popfest crowds moving than on previous records, Bjorkas’ keen sense of melody remains intact. The anthemic “A Different Light,” “My Sense of Pride,” with its gentle country shuffle, and the slowly building “A Few Empty Waves” are among his catchiest tunes. Guitarist Ville Hopponen colors them with exquisite, subtle flourishes. The album’s best song may be “1914 and Beyond,” which sets the European economic crisis against a lovely, spare piano backing. Like the rest of All Blackshirts to Me, even when the specifics seem foreign, the melody lingers.