For pop music performers who still do things the old-fashioned way--write their own songs, play their own instruments, have their own ideas--recording careers customarily show a progression. So it's worth noting that "Equally Cursed and Blessed" (Atlantic) is Catatonia's third album. The Welsh quintet's first long-player was not released in the United States and its second, although issued here by Neil Young's Vapor label, was overlooked. Elsewhere in the world, though, 1998's "International Velvet" was a massive hit. The subdued tone of "Equally Cursed and Blessed," which entered the British charts at No. 1, is clearly a reaction to its predecessor's unexpected success.
The album opens with a tinkling piano, followed by a string section. The brooding "Dead From the Waist Down" is soon revealed as a down-tempo showcase for singer Cerys Matthews, who has a big, versatile voice. Moodier and often quieter than the band's previous work, "Equally Cursed" finds Catatonia developing a sophisticated post-rock sound. Although several of the album's tracks have buoyant choruses and two of them are outright rockers, the majority are torch songs that allow Matthews to purr and growl. On songs like "Shoot the Messenger," "Nothing Hurts" and "Road Rage"--the latter is one of two "International Velvet" tracks appended to this release--the result is rich and powerful.
Not all the songs work so well. One factor in Catatonia's new sound is the breakup of what had been the band's principal songwriting team, Matthews and guitarist Mark Roberts. On this album, most of the writing credits go--separately--to Roberts, Matthews or guitarist Owen Powell.
Melodically, the partition hasn't hurt. Tune for tune, "Equally Cursed and Blessed" is far more consistently appealing than most of the albums on the Billboard charts these days. The lyrics, however, suffer. Two of Roberts's songs offer feeble jabs at London and its most famous residents: "Londinium" indicts the city for nothing more momentous than being busy and expensive, while "Storm the Palace" amusingly suggests that the royals should be forced to work at Spar, a British convenience store chain, but only because their presence attracts too many tourists. Roberts may be a Welsh nationalist, but he's no revolutionary.
On this side of the Atlantic, Catatonia's limited audience surely has something to do with its eclecticism. This is a band that's capable of lush balladry but also dabbles in electronics--co-producer Tommy D works mostly with dance and hip-hop acts--and sometimes channels the Sex Pistols; its music is too pretty for the rockers, too song-oriented for the techno crowd and insufficiently kitschy for the lounge revivalists who might otherwise appreciate Matthews's cabaret-kitten roar. Still, if the group can slip between the narrow gaps in this country's rigid market segmentation, Catatonia's third album could be the first in a string of American successes.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)