CATHERINE WHEEL: LIKE CATS AND DOGS (1996)
1) Heal 2; 2) Wish You Were Here; 3) Mouthful Of Air; 4) Car; 5) Girl Stand Still; 6) Saccharine; 7) Backwards Guitar; 8) Tongue Twisted; 9) These Four Walls; 10) High Heels; 11) Harder Than I Am; 12) La La Lala La; 13) Something Strange / Angelo Nero / Spirit Of Radio.
I guess if you are a mildly popular rock band and you feel the need to release an entire album of B-sides, outtakes, and other rarities, one way to go about is to put out one of those Hipgnosis album covers where one guy is supposed to ask the other, "So, just how many cats are there on the photo?", and the other is supposed to answer, "Cats? What cats?". (By the way, the back cover actually has dogs, but if you are a straight male, it is nowhere near as interesting).
Nevertheless, with this bit of a Roxy Music touch out of the way, this is an almost surprisingly strong collection. Since it gathers leftovers from several phases of the band's career, it has the added bonus of diversity — and the band's B-sides were not much weaker than their A-sides anyway. Dressed in the same wall of sound, yes, but the songs do range from drawn-out atmospheric panoramas to mid-tempo alt-rockers to concise pop tunes, with a few covers thrown in for good measure: Floyd's ʽWish You Were Hereʼ, done with organ and harmonica over acoustic guitars, is totally respectable (Dickinson's vocals seem a bit overdone to me, but then, they aren't specially overdone for this tribute — it's his natural way of blowing out emotion), and Rush's ʽSpirit Of The Radioʼ is just bizarre, because, unlike Floyd, Rush just does not seem to be the kind of band too likely for such ambience-lovers as C. W. to cover. Indeed, it does not work too well (then again, I'm no huge fan of Rush, so I'm not likely to be a huger fan of Rush covers), but a surprise is a surprise anyway.
It is interesting, actually, that their B-sides in the era of Chrome sounded more like the dreamier stuff from Ferment — relating particularly to ʽCarʼ and ʽGirl Stand Stillʼ, two tracks appended to the short and upbeat single ʽShow Me Maryʼ and illustrating the «static» side of the band for a change; and I do prefer both of them to ʽShow Me Maryʼ. ʽCarʼ creates a soothing-lulling pillow of sound, as the bass takes responsibility for main melody, and a variety of electronically treated regular and slide guitars zoom in and out with micro-melodies of their own — a soft, fragile pattern that goes along very well with the introductory "if I touch you will you break?.." ʽGirl Stand Stillʼ is even better in all of its 8-minute glory, a Talk Talk-ish «pre-post-rock» slowly winding its way up a steep path until all hell breaks loose and then taking extra time to calm down — not as if this weren't a formula that Pink Floyd had already been following two decades earlier, but I just like the execution: there's something faintly mesmerizing about the way all their droning overdubs flow in and out of each other.
The shorter and poppier songs aren't nearly that good, but ʽBackwards Guitarʼ has one of their wildest solo parts ever, and ʽThese Four Wallsʼ is arguably one of their best slow grungy rockers, largely because of the unusual mix of desperation and determination contained in Dickinson's voice as he lashes at the microphone with the chorus — it's as if there's a clenched fist here added to the fuzzy psychedelic mix, and, strange enough, it works: maybe because the band does not generally abuse the «teenage battle scream» principle, on this particular track it comes across as convincing, an odd statement of anthemic determination in a sea of semi-conscious uncertainty. Although the semi-conscious uncertainty can be cool as well — ʽLa La Lala Laʼ, whose title (and especially the way it is chanted throughout) could almost align the band with the likes of Blur, is accompanied with one-liners like "nothing's good, nothing's clear", "don't know what I really fear", and waves of screechy psychedelic guitar to illustrate the confusion.
Despite the record's unhealthy length (70 minutes of Catherine Wheel is quite a chore to sit through in any setting), I give it a thumbs up, because who could resist those pink nighties... uh, I mean, because there's enough high points here to compensate for the monotonousness of the previous two LPs, and also because my idea of what works best for this band may not necessarily be the same as the band's own idea — I like them when they're building up quiet atmospherics out of a half-dozen guitar overdubs, and I like them when they're raging over an instrumental break, and there's plenty of both on Cats And Dogs, whereas both Chrome and Happy Days try too hard to promote them as brilliant songwriters, which they are not.