The Estate Library may be the only place where you can go to read William Shakespeare’s The Trapping of the Mouse or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Worm of Midnight” while listening to the music of Gossamer Axe or Snori Snoriscousin and His Brass Idiots. The world of literature is a big, big place, and it’s an intrepid and meticulous soul who can keep track of the shifting tapestry that we call “reality.” There are books within books and bands you can only listen to in your imagination. So you’re to be forgiven if you’ve seen references to Cats Laughing in novels like Bone Dance or the Bordertown series and assumed that they were only another fictional group like Wild Hunt or Eldritch Steel. But if that was your assumption, it’s time you learned the truth: Cats Laughing were very real, and they were one hell of a band — and they live on in these CDs, and they’re still one hell of a band.
Cats Laughing was never a “big name” group, but you’ll certainly recognize the names of the members: Emma Bull, of War for the Oaks and Bone Dance fame; Taltos author Steven Brust; Adam Stemple of Boiled in Lead; Lojo Russo, singer and songwriter, also of Funks Grove. Band member Bill Colsher is a bit of an enigma, but an internet search leads me to believe he may be working in the computer field. Dave Stenshoel and Robin Anders, both also of BiL, also appear on Another Way to Travel. Emma, Lojo, Adam and sometimes Steven sing, Adam and Bill play guitar, Lojo rocks on bass, and Steven handles the drums. Dave plays fiddle and Robin adds various cool percussive sounds.
The Cats musical style defies easy categorization: bluesy, funky, folky, rock’n’roll — almost impossible to resist singing along with, and sure to set your feet tapping, if not send you reeling onto the dance floor outright. Cats Laughing is more bluesy than Another Way to Travel; Stemple and Brust grind out some sexy vocals on “Half-Dollar Blues” and Stemple positively smokes on “Back Door.” Bull’s fans will recognize songs from War for the Oaks on both CDs. On the first, Emma sings “Signal to Noise” — the first time I heard this I hated it, because it was the exact opposite of the tune I heard in my head when I originally read the lyrics. The second time I heard it, I realized how utterly right it was. (In fact, the entire Cats Laughing CD had that affect on me to some extent; having owned a tape of Another Way to Travel that I literally played until it fell apart, I was expecting more of the same, and CL took me by surprise.)
All of the songs on CL are originals by Bull, Russo, Stemple, and Brust, except for Lojo Russo’s fabulous rendition of “Gloomy Sunday,” the “suicide song” most infamously recorded by the late Billie Holliday. They have some great lyrics — smart lyrics, as you’d expect from a band so closely aligned with the writing world — none of that “ooo, baby, love me baby” nonsense here! I’m particularly fond of the haunting “Enchantment”:
You know about incantations
You know how to break the spell
You’re looking out for a cut-rate prince
Or a pauper would do as well.
You’ve given your love to things in disguise
And none of them ever transform
You say it was your fault every time
And you never think that’s wrong.
Beauty bears the Beast inside
Broken hopes in silence hide
Victim of the ones who lied
You’re under the Enchantment.
If I had a magic mirror
A mirror that never lies
I’d hold it up to your heart and your head
And your hands and your face and your eyes.
But the spell you’re under would cloud the glass
And you’d swear it wasn’t you
And you’d turn off the lights and pull the shades
To make all the lies true.
“Teller of Tales” is another evocative song with lyrics right out of a fairy tale or a dream:
Spin out tales like a spider spins webs
Lead me by voice and by feel.
Show me the places where beauty still walks
And I’ll tell you why it’s not real
I heard of a man who drank down the sea
Of a sea that was really a man
I heard of a giant who came from the sky
And a star that burned in his hand
I heard of a tree with its roots deep in hell
Of a carpet woven with lies
I heard of a secret that will never be told
It will be in his heart when he dies
None of the vocalists in Cats Laughing have “technically perfect” singing voices; indeed Emma Bull, in WftO, could have been writing about herself instead of Eddi McCandry when she said “…[she wasn’t] the best musician he’d ever heard, not in a technical sense. But with half a chance, [she was] able to grab and hold an audience.” Emma, Lojo, Adam…instead of voices that fall pleasantly and insignificantly upon the ear, these are voices that snake out and insinuate themselves into the gut — slightly rough, muddy, whiskey-hoarse voices that evoke smoky underground clubs where the denim and leather clad working class go to shake off another spirit-crushing work week with cold beer and hot music. Magickal.
This fey effect is particularly apparent on Another Way to Travel, with invigorating songs like “Bright Street Beachhouse Back in Business Blues” and the jaunty “See How the Sparrow Flies.” Emma and Lojo harmonize effortlessly behind Stemple and Brust on the melancholy “Stars Overhead” and Emma cuts loose on her “anthem for headlong post-adolescent romantics,” “For It All” (also from WftO, and one of my personal favorites.)
There are a couple of weaker songs on AWtT…I’m not particularly fond of the traditional folk “Nottamun Town,” and while the Cats do make it more interesting than the norm I just don’t find it terribly palatable. And the bluesy, Biblical “Elijah” just doesn’t grab me. But then there’s the harder rocking “Black Knight’s Work,” (lyrics by another great writer, John Ford) a tasty, chunky song full of dangerous imagery and gritty bass:
Dark deeds and secret matters,
you can fix it but it doesn’t last
Bright flash, the mirror shatters,
who’s reflected in the broken glass?
When the black knight moves
you can feel a hand disturb the game
You can hear the city asking
for the white pawn’s name
Between the black squares and the white
there’s gonna be a sacrifice tonight
Before the black knight moves again,
you better do the same.
And Another Way to Travel ends with my very favorite of all the Cats’ songs, the hero-riding-off-into-the-sunset, fade-to-black, roll-the-credits finale, “Draw the Curtain” — a song which I invariably play two or three times before I shut down the music:
Draw the curtain, put a candle on the sill
Let me take myself away
For we have years and days and hours left to kill
And the means to make them pay.
Good stuff, that.
Cats Laughing may appear in fantasy novels, but there’s nothing imaginary about these two solid recordings. Of the two, studio production seems a bit more solid on the second CD, but both are standout pieces of entertainment. If you’re a fan of any of the individual band members, you’ll love these CDs. If you’re a fan of the books in which the Cats’ music appears, you’ll really love holding a solid artifact from the world usually confined to those pages. And if you just like good music with heart, well, here it is.
Listen to the Cats in all their glory: ‘For It All’
(Spin Art, 1988 and 1990, 2003)