Wail, Cat, Wail
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, every so often a band comes around that is so new, so fresh, and so exciting that it completely changes everything you think you know about music.
Katzenjammer is such a band.
Hailing from Oslo, Norway, the four ladies of Katzenjammer – Solveig Heilo, Marianne Sveen, Anne Marit Bergheim, and Turid Jørgensen – met in music school and joined forces after realizing they could learn more together as a band. Each member of Katzenjammer (which translates roughly as “cat’s wail”) plays about fifteen different instruments and is a gifted vocalist in her own right, and the styles of music they tackle is about as eclectic as music can get.
In 2008, they released their first album, Le Pop, which found the girls exploring styles as diverse as bluegrass, country, pop, polka, cabaret, ragtime, jazz, gypsy, and other forms of European folk music, all melding together like some sort of brilliantly maddening circus. “A Bar In Amsterdam” features Solveig on trumpet and is one of the band’s most energetic numbers, especially on the live stage. “Demon Kitty Rag” features banjo and violin and is recommended for anyone who ever enjoyed Django Reinhardt, while “Tea With Cinnamon” is quite possibly the most accessible polka song ever written. “Hey Ho On The Devil’s Back” is a gritty folk song that sounds like what you’d get if Ennio Morricone was composing his spaghetti western themes in the middle ages. The record mellows out a bit for “Wading In Deeper” before exploding into the psycho-sphere with the swirling circus romp of the title track. The instrumental “Der Kapitan” follows, with an ominous feel that somehow manages to combine Morricone with Wagner, quite possibly the greatest soundtrack to never grace a film. That haunting eastern European vibe continues on “Virginia Clemm” before they take us all to Appalachia with the bluegrass/pop styles of “Play My Darling, Play”. However, they soon venture back into that territory with “To The Sea”, which sounds like what you might get if Gilbert & Sullivan were from Bulgaria, but also boasting a wonderful singalong chorus. “Mother Superior” is a deep and dark waltz, driven by accordion and sounding like a cross between French and Russian folk music…one of the most dynamic songs in this band’s wildly varied catalog. Closing the proceedings is the southern blues drawl of “Aint No Thang”, which is just pure fun.
2011 brought A Kiss Before You Go, which found the band taking their crazy formula and ramping it up with some truly excellent songs. Kicking off with the short, haunting title track, the album soon gives way to the sunny countrified pop of “I Will Dance (when you walk away)”, featuring harmonica, glockenspiel, and some outstanding vocal harmonies, and “Cherry Pie”, which is the sort of ragtime stomp that the Ditty Bops became famous for. To date Katzenjammer has only released one cover song, a truly unique, jazzy take on “Land Of Confusion” by Genesis which just might better the original. They slow down a bit for the waltz-like “Lady Marlene” before melding Kentucky country with Irish folk for the brilliant single, “Rock Paper Scissors”. “Cocktails And Ruby Slippers” sounds like what you would get if Regina Spektor did an album with Tegan & Sara, while the Eastern Bloc influence creeps back in on “Soviet Trumpeter”. They bring the rock out on “Loathsome M” which would feel at home on the CBGB stage in 1977, and then manage to blend ragtime and bluegrass on “Shepherd’s Song”, and throw in some true Northern European drama on “Gypsy Flee”, before closing out with the ethereal field holler, “God’s Great Dust Storm”.
Seriously, these girls can do it all.
Which brings us to Rockland, their most recent offering. Reportedly whittled down from a staggering 83 songs, there is a greater sense of focus on this album than before. The polkas and gypsy folk is downplayed here, while there is more of an emphasis on country, pop, and rock styles. Which is not to say that they diluted their sound, or sold out in the least. “Old De Spain” kicks off with the sort of Appalachian banjo stomp that would make Gillian Welch proud, which leads perfectly into the catchy “Curvaceous Needs”. “Oh My God” is funky and quirky and is one of the coolest pop songs to ever feature an accordion and could be a hit. “Lady Grey” is a sweet little folk song that I could totally hear in a coffeehouse in Del Ray…perhaps not my choice for a lead single (as it is) but a nice breather nonetheless. “My Own Tune” has a cool afterbeat groove and some great vocal harmonies while “Shine Like Neon Rays” is a killer pop song, driven by a toy piano no less, and could be a big big hit….one of the best choruses to ever grace a Katzenjammer song. They bring things down to a simmer with the smoky “Driving After You”, a song that I could easily hear Gregg Allman singing, in a completely different universe, while “Flash In The Dark” is a solid little tune that is both subtle and sweeping at the same time. “My Dear” has a sort of Celtic country/folk vibe, the kind of sweet thing that I might have heard when I was in Newfoundland. “Bad Girl” has a feel that reminds me of a grittier, more rural Ani Difranco, with all the gusto of the Righteous Babe herself. The album closes out with the soft acoustic textures of the title track and some truly angelic vocal harmonies. What this album lacks in diversity it more than makes up in skill and is an excellent third album, and one that really should break the band big and wide.
To borrow a phrase from Bill Graham, when referring to the Grateful Dead – they’re not the best at what they do….they’re the only ones who do what they do. And the world is more fortunate for it.
Written by: Chris Anderson