The Warmest Place
Catcall’s ‘The Warmest Place’ is a timely reminder of why we loved pop music so much in the first place, writes CAITLIN WELSH.
As a female fan of pop music or a pop music fan who is also a fan of women, it’s been a largely heartening century so far. For every gross character like Brian McFadden or Chris Brown, there are the Robyns, Washingtons, Santigolds, Beyonces, Florences and, yes, Adeles, who perform variously with strength, subtlety, subversiveness, self-assurance and shit-kicking glee. But if you apply a sort of Bechdel test to pop music, it doesn’t fare much better than Hollywood does.
Pop musicians devote an inordinate amount of time to talking about their love lives, because the shorthands are already in place, and it’s also one of the easiest things to write a song about because nothing encourages self-indulgent art like self-pity, and nothing encourages self-pity like problems with your love life. It means that female musicians spend a lot of time pining after or berating men, which is a natural and useful function of pop music, but can get exhausting if you think about it for too long.
"If you want only for songs to be blisteringly verbose narratives of sadness and retribution, go nurse your copy of 'Strange Tourist' and leave us here to dance."
And here you have a smart, fun pop record with emotional depth and resonance that deals with other things as well bemoaning and celebrating romantic misadventures, and whose appeal only broadens and deepens upon thinking about it, as well as listening to it. Catherine Kelleher writes songs about grief and loss, independence and friendship, and indirectly, about pop music itself. The Warmest Place, a long-awaited and long-in-the-making debut, appears to have been made entirely on her own terms.
Some of these songs are years old – most notably the title track, an a capella number Kelleher first performed on stage as frontwoman of Kiosk, not long after her father’s sudden death. Her voice, forthright and unadorned except for the hall-of-mirrors multi-tracking, cracks very slightly. She sounds strong and hopeful, but longs for an unattainable closure: “Tell me you’re there in that warm place”. It leads directly into ‘August’, an expanded riff on the same song and idea, written a year later. The production is a discomfiting blend of chiming, metallic sounds that catch the light and dogged, dank drums that echo off the walls. Kelleher sings in that same determined fashion, the notes long and unwavering (no melisma or even much vibrato), echoing the just-push-forward aesthetic of the intro. Kelleher’s punk background has followed her into pop – her voice, lacking the gloss and drama of a classic pop diva, shrugs and belts it anyway.
Kelleher considers no territory out of bounds. The breathy, ’90s R&B-club tension of ‘Paralysed’ shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Sandwiched between two brash, sunny pop songs, it sounds like a misplaced bit of “edgy” filler on the backend of the second Spice Girls album, but it’s built on suggestive, layered exhalations of various sizes then knit together gorgeously near the end. ‘Swimming Pool’ -- M+N’s track of year for 2010 – remains a standout. I remain strong in my conviction that the word “nipples” should never be used in a pop song, but the imagery is vivid and the groove undeniable. ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ is a cute, dreamy coda, and it feels right to tack it on at the end, having travelled from the grief of the title track to Kelleher repeating, “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love”. It might be a cover, but even going through the motions can help you be ready for the real thing.
‘Art Star’ rides on a strutting beat, a barely-there cowbell, a Prince guitar lick that flickers like a neon sign and Kelleher laying down the law with more sass than a shoulder-padded booty girl in a new jack swing video clip. “I told my girlfriends/Your name/They said they’d seen you/And you got no game,” she informs some unfortunate d-bag, before biting out the finger-wagging chorus: “Grow up.” While at first it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, Kelleher spits out lines like, “My name is acid/I’ll rain on your parade” with more insouciance and ease (and, crucially, rhythm) than Debbie Harry’s self-conscious flow. What sounds like a slightly daggy, self-conscious pastiche track is ultimately carried off by Kelleher’s moxie, and the fact it’s exactly the kind of ultra-white New Wave cheese-funk that would put its affected, superior subject right off.
The lyrics are not always the most nuanced, but it’s not an issue if you’re the kind of listener who can get past or even revel in commonplaces like, “You know that I love you/You know that we are true” and “That girl is so amazing/Sunlight in the pouring rain.” I wouldn’t take that shit from Diane Warren or whatever lowest-common-denominator MOR songwriter wins all the Grammys these days, but when Kelleher is repeating them in your ear, it just feels like the simplest way to say what she means. But, hey, if you want only for songs to be blisteringly verbose narratives of sadness and retribution, go nurse your copy of Strange Tourist and leave us here to dance.
She’s come a long way since the learn-as-we-go teenage riot of Kiosk, and has worked hard to gain confidence as a vocalist, but there’s definitely a hint of her garage roots in the defiantly natural timbre. There are recurring references to bareness and naked skin on this record, and it never feels like Kelleher and her many producers are trying to hide or obfuscate anything in the playful arrangements. On the contrary. This is heart-on-sleeve, ears-in-adolescence pop, where every tired pop trope has been fished from the dustbin and carefully reconstructed to remind you why you liked it so much when you were less cynical.