After hearing Catfish Haven’s new record, Devastator (Secretly Canadian), I went back and listened to their two EPs and their first full-length, trying to figure out how anybody had ever pegged them as an indie-rock band. Turns out I’d remembered those discs as poppier than they really are—these guys are so deep into 70s rock that they make their retro-loving labelmates Jason Molina and David Vandervelde look like futurists. Though they’ve got scruffy Logan Square facial hair and they’re not nearly old or jaded enough for the job, they sound like they ought to be playing a weekly gig at a blue-collar suburban bar, not a record-release party at Metro.
Maybe we all got fooled by Catfish Haven’s modest, unflashy approach—in the past they’ve favored a stripped-down trio setup and made heavy use of acoustic guitar. No chance of that here: for the new one the band chucked that MO out the window and instead went for a massive, electrified retro-rock sound. If their early material was like a sensitive country boy who’d moved to the city, Devastator is like that boy’s older brother back home, with his Camaro parked proudly in front of his double-wide.
The shift is obvious from the very first tune. After some applause, an emcee’s introduction, and the briefest of intro licks, front man George Hunter starts hollering “Are you ready?” over an insistent quarter-note snare, to which a gospel choir’s worth of voices responds each time with a hearty “Yeah!” Soon the voices are joined by enthusiastic hand claps, slippery saxophones, a bouncing bass line, and two guitars, one playing a slinky lead and the other chopping out backbeats—they’re straight-up doing show-band rhythm and blues, and there’s not a whiff of irony in the air. Motherfuckers sound like the Blues Brothers, and they don’t seem to give a shit if you have a problem with that.
Actually, if you triangulate from Devastator‘s beefy guitars and soulful backing vocals on one side and Hunter’s gruff delivery on the other, you pretty much draw a bead not on Belushi and Aykroyd but on Bob Seger—much beloved, especially during the 80s, in semirural areas like the Missouri trailer park where Hunter lived till age five. (His family then moved to Elgin, where all three members of Catfish Haven grew up.) “Set in Stone” sounds like it could’ve been lifted whole from a Silver Bullet Band album, with its opening “ooh-wooh-ooh” backup harmonies, postdisco drums and rhythm guitar, and smoove sax. Even the relatively loose-limbed, psych-tinged “Blue Sun” has a touch of Seger to it, in part because the whole thing’s slathered in the kind of reverb that was so popular with 80s radio-rock acts.
Catfish Haven have never sweated their image, but still, this is ballsy: they’ve gone from “not necessarily trying to seem cool” all the way to “very possibly totally uncool.” Though Seger’s raw late-60s recordings with the Bob Seger System have been decreed awesome by crate-digging garage freaks, no self-respecting music snob has ever admitted to liking his popular stuff. The band crowds the stage with auxiliary members—at the last show I saw, I think there were five extra musicians up there—but not in the way that’s trendy in indie rock, with that communitarian “Hey, everybody, let’s put on a show!” kind of vibe. Catfish Haven brings in hired guns to deliver studio-grade support and pays them all by the gig. At their show this Saturday, the core three-piece—Hunter, bassist Miguel Castillo, and drummer Ryan Farnham—will be joined by TK BACKING VOCALISTS, TK HORN PLAYERS, TK KEYBOARDIST OR OTHERS, and Mike Lust of Tight Phantomz on lead guitar.
Even the album cover is almost defiantly un-indie. A lurid expanse of hot pink and fuchsia broken by a silhouette of a woman’s legs in high heels, garters, and stockings, at first it looks like cheap wink-wink schlock a la the Eagles of Death Metal—but it’s so hard to pick up on any winks that I’ve come to believe it’s actually serious. For a lot of indie rockers, Devastator will be the only CD they buy all year where the booklet includes a close-up photo of a woman’s ass in a thong.
Devastator isn’t all riffs and ass, though. As on their previous records, Catfish Haven are strongest here on the slowest songs, and they’ve broken up the action with a couple choice ballads. “Tripping in Memphis” is a story of debauchery and romance that sounds every bit as woozy and drag-ass as the messed-up guy Hunter’s singing about—his voice quavers with desperation, and the arrangement’s decorated with wobbling guitars and queasy bass. And “Valerie” shoots for classic soul, with a steady-chiming piano part pushed up front to accompany Hunter’s best soul-man impression. It’s quite a good one—over time he’s developed the fine control over his vocal inflections that he needs to sound like he really means what he’s saying, not just reading the words off a lyric sheet. And when he’s not pushing his voice into the red, its raspy edges give it a warm, whiskey-burnished feel. The fact is, Hunter’s a better singer than most men in indie rock, which has a tradition of preferring unique voices over good ones. So he may be trying on someone else’s shoes, but they fit him fine.
With their throwback songs and their throwback professionalism, Catfish Haven may come off like a band out of time. But you know, a wise man once sang about old-time rock ‘n’ roll and its soothing effects on the soul, and... well, I think you can take it from there.v
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