Though you wouldn’t know it living in New England, summer is right around the corner. That makes it the perfect time to revisit one of the all-time best summertime albums ever released.
Thirteen years ago today, April 17, 2005, The Cat Empire released their second full-length, the outstanding Two Shoes album. I don’t remember how I stumbled across this band, but I was instantly a fan of their horn-laden, Latin-tinged, humor-laced, jazz-influenced rap-rock-reggae hybrid.
The album kicks off with the super-silly high-energy of “Sly,” a semi-spoken conga drum tour-de-force that rocks like Frankie & Annette on ecstasy. Felix Riebl has a voice that always sounds tongue-in-cheek, and cocky enough that if he wasn’t making you smile so wide, you’d probably want to pop him one right in the smugness. Instead, he comes off here as the over-confident friend whose crazy plans seem questionable but always end up as the best night ever.
The Calypso-flavored “In My Pocket” finds the Empire’s other lead vocalist, Harry James Angus standing front and center. Between the tropical vibes in the music and the sand-and-surf references in the lyrics, this is a laid-back summer classic as cool as a tall glass with an umbrella in it.
Felix returns to lead vocals on the excellent “Lullaby,” a sappy love song disguised as an upbeat romp. When I saw the band live for the first time (at The Higher Ground in Vermont shortly after the release of this album), Felix prefaced the performance of “Lullaby,” by saying it was a response to his girlfriend who, while listening to Jack Johnson, asked Felix why he couldn’t write nice love songs like that. This song is his attempt to do so, but it still sounds better than anything I’ve ever heard from Jack Johnson. “I cannot say ‘oh, sweetness’ like he could / because I cannot play a lullaby like it should… I used to cry but now I have to laugh / ‘Because she’s got that torment to a fine art…“
Harry takes over again for “The Car Song,” a throwback to a decade ago and a rumination on the foolish ambitions of youth. It’s funny and poignant and resonates more and more as I get older. At the end of the day, although it speaks to squandered time and wasted opportunity, it also serves as a send-up of these concepts since everything seems to turn out okay no matter what. “My parents say ‘think about the future’ and my teachers say the same / but it’s hard when there’s a basketball game in the park…” A decade later he’s in the same rut, but he doesn’t sound all that fussed – or even inclined to change his wayward ways – when faced with the success of a former rival who didn’t squander the time and waste the opportunities.
While the band has done well in their native Australia, they remain criminally overlooked here in the U.S. Their shows are always well-attended (those that I’ve been to) but while lesser acts score massive hits on waves of popularity, The Cat Empire continues on in relative obscurity. Their fan base is avid and worldwide, but true superstardom unjustifiably eludes them. This record, in particular, should be on everyone’s feel-good summertime playlist, but I can think of maybe half-a-dozen people that I know who have even heard it.
The laid-back party-in-the-sand mood carries throughout the entire disc. The album is perfectly paced and never less than upbeat. And with song titles like “Sol y Sombra,” “The Night That Never Ends,” “Saltwater,” and “Party Started,” it is no surprise that the album plays front-to-back like a Caribbean getaway on someone else’s dime, where your drink is never empty and hangovers have been banished forever.