Five Lives Left: the Family Cat Anthology (3LOOP)
CD / DL / LP
Sonic Youth once claimed that The Family Cat was their favourite UK rock band believe it or not. So the fact that this is the first anthology by them is a bit beweildering. Not to worry though, it’s with us now & here’s our review.
Ah, the family cat. I’m very pleased and not a little amazed to see an anthology of this seemingly also-ran band released. A re-appraisal (or, indeed, an initial appraisal given the general widespread commercial indifference to the band at the time) is long overdue. A little background. The band were formed in London in 1989, although the band members were from Cornwall, Plymouth and Southampton. They released their first single, “Tom Verlaine” in July 1989 to much critical acclaim. It was made NME single of the week when such things meant anything. Somehow, despite going on to release a mini-album and two full LPs chock full of songs of often phenomenal quality, they never managed to capitalise on this early commercial promise. The band eventually gave up the chase in early 1995. In the consciousness of anyone who remembers any of the Family Cats exultant live shows, anyone who bought one of the t-shirts or still treasures their old copies of those albums and singles, the band will always be one of the ones that got away. A great shame.
It is with relief that I am able to report that the vast majority of the tracks included in this anthology have not only stood the test of time , but also are way superior to much of what passes for intelligent, guitar based indie-rock (if I may be forgiven for using that term) today.
The Family Cat had the distinction of having three guitarists, so by god they could plaster you to the wall with an onslaught of riffing and feedback when the mood took them. They had an underrated guitar hero in Jelb, whose unique but unmistakable wailing riffs ran through the Family Cat’s music like an electrical current from day one.
The first thing that strikes me about this release is that it is an anthology. That, to me, suggests two things. Firstly that it’s going to be pretty darn all-encompassing. Secondly, it lends an air of literacy; bookishness, even. Both these are true. Thirty-six tracks in total, spread over two CD’s. All the key tracks and more are here. And yes, there is an intelligence, a literary craft to the work of the Family Cat which shines from many of the lyrics.
CD1 covers all the singles of the band’s career, interspersed with the better of the B-sides. And the Family Cat did some cracking b-sides. The opening trio of “Tom Verlaine”, “Remember What It Is That You Love” and “A Place With A Name” (with “Remember”’s 12” B-side “I Thought I’d Died And Gone To Heaven” thrown in for good measure) are probably the songs that hooked a lot of evangelical Cat fans in the first place. Blistering guitar pop with a barrel of suss, fantastic sing-along tunes and just a slight archness to them. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear these tracks again.
The singles taken from their first full-length album, “Furthest From The Sun”, saw the band take a more adventurous approach; the moody atmospherics of “Colour Me Grey”, cyclical riffing on “River Of Diamonds” (both tracks featuring extra vocals from a nascent Polly Harvey) and then the seven minutes plus majesty of perhaps their most-loved track, “Steamroller”, included here with B-sides- a playful yet fairly faithful cover of the Beatles’ “Across The Universe” and barnstorming live favourite “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
The immediately deleted single cover of Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” is here, bridging the gap to those singles taken from what turned out to be The Family Cat’s last stab at success, the excellent album “Magic Happens”. By this stage the band had perfected their sound. There is a toughness to the arrangements and playing on Airplane Gardens, Springing The Atom, Wonderful Excuse and the rollicking Golden Book. A special mention for the inclusion of “Amazing Hangover” which, as well as being gut-wrenchingly affecting, is without doubt the best love song as social commentary ever. Oh, and to illustrate their lighter side, B-side “Bring Me The Head Of Michael Portillo” is included too. CD1 rounds off with the “re-bereted” version of “Tom Verlaine”, which is a palpably better produced version than the single which starts us off.
CD2 rounds up the rest. And what an unexpected treat it has in store. Like CD1 it moves chronologically, kicking off with the Peel session version of “Sandbag Your Heart” and including four more tracks from debut , the criminally production-flawed “Tell ‘Em We’re Surfin’”-“Slept In Clothes”, “From the Sea To The City” (again the Peel Session version), “Endless Cigarette” (which at seven minutes of walking pace riffing has more than a nod toward the Velvet Underground, but in a very British way) and the warm acoustic strum of “Gabriel’s Wings”.
The title track from “Furthest from the Sun” is included along with the tense kitchen-sink drama of “Too Many Late Nights” which whips up an almost psychotic emotional tension culminating in the strangled cry of “…pictures of old flames burning with a whisper of desire!!”. Marvellous stuff. More Peel session versions of “With A War” and “Gameshow” are here, and, particularly on the latter track, the seasoned Family Cat listener gets an idea of the gestation of the song, this version being much less laid-back than the eventual album cut. Final track from “Furthest From The Sun, the majestic “Fire Music” is also included, retaining the personal, emotional disorientation with its repeated ending refrain of “Tear it out!”
Into the home straight we get a selection of the best of the non-single tracks from the brilliant yet criminally overlooked “Magic Happens”. The rabid indecision of “Move Over, I’ll Drive”, followed by the wide-screen majesty of the Family Cat at their most inspired on the trio of “Rockbreaking”, “Blood Orange”, and “Nowhere to Go But Down”. “Be sad, be happy and be wise” sings Fred on the latter song, “For we all end up the same way in the end…” the pathos, especially given that this was to be the band’s swan song, is powerful stuff.
I fully expected that to be the end. After all, it WAS the end. But no. It turns out that they had begun work on a third full album before disbanding and five previously unreleased tracks are included to round off this collection. For an old Family Cat fan, it’s like finding the holy grail down the back of the sofa.
In a way, it makes their abrupt split all the more tragic- because they appear to have had lost none of their verve in the music that might have made the next LP. The five songs have all the reflective lyricism and tunefulness of yore, and the music seems to have an even grander, more epic sweep than their previous work, particularly on the superb “Snowplough”. “If You Think You Know What love Is” begins as an acoustic and vocals strum before the rest of the band crash in and is, of the five unreleased tracks, the one that most sounds like a demo. Ace of Cups adopts an almost hard-rock riffing with a gloriously heavy sheen. “I’m using up all my strength/ I think I’ll give up at length/ Giving it one more blast/ And keeping the best for last” sings Fred. Well, quite.
The aforementioned “Snowplough” builds from a plaintive voice and organ intro into a reflective rocker. The song grows but manages not to overreach itself.
“Mount Pleasant” is taken from a Mark Goodier session and is perhaps more redolent of “Furthest From the Sun” era Family Cat. Killer chorus, harmonies and Jelb trademark riffing all present and correct. Fred’s voice on this cut is him at his most Scott Walker (a cap previously having been doffed in that particular direction with the band’s cover of Walker’s “Montague Terrace (In Blue)”).
Final track “Taking Your Sister Home” shows, by contrast, that they could still rock out like the old days- coming across like the bastard offspring of “Remember What It is That You Love”, except wearing leather trousers and with one foot on the monitor.
And that’s your lot. I knew that this compilation would be good, but it is so lovingly compiled that it exceeds my expectations. The inclusion of unreleased session versions is particularly pleasing, but the true excitement for any fan of the band lies in the five “new” tracks at the end. It is bittersweet to hear just how good those tracks are. What might the next album have held? Or the one after that?
The cruel thought that keeps coming back to me is that as the band were taking their last stab at success, attempting to appeal to an audience at that point enthralled to all things grunge and, well, American, an act called Oasis managed to catch the zeitgeist and bring epic guitar pop to worldwide acclaim. Fair play. For them, as they say, the rest is history. But while we were lauding “Champagne Supernova” as the last word in grandiose guitar music in the mid 90s (and I don’t mean to denigrate that in any way), the Family Cat had packed up, gone home and closed the door behind them. This collection emphatically shows that the Family Cat had the songs and the talent (though maybe not the tabloid potential) to have been major players on the same terms. Perhaps they were just ever so slightly men out of time.
The family cat had such a broad palette. They were capable of euphoric rock-wig out, melancholy, introspection, mania, sensitive balladry, guitar pop perfection, experimentation, strident protest- at times all within the same song. They had a fanatical fan-base which unfortunately was ultimately too small to sustain the group. I have read that despite this Anthology and the interest in the band it has created, there is little chance of the band reforming even for a handful of gigs. That too is a shame as it may have helped a more general re-appraisal of this lost, matchless group.
For anyone who missed out on the Family Cat the first time round- I recommend you buy this compilation in order to hear the missing link between shambling C86 type indie and the Kasabians, Muses and Beady Eyes of today. For dyed in the fur fans- I know you’ll buy it anyway. Remember what it was that you loved.
All words by Philip Thompson. More writing by Philip on Louder Than War can be found here. You can follow Philip on twitter at https://twitter.com/philestein54 and check out his band Bug at their website www.bugpunk.co.uk.