immy Rabbitte said it best: “Soul is the music people understand.”
“There's no fuckin' bullshit,” he added. “It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.” Maybe Rabbitte isn’t the best person to ask, being a fictional character and all, but as the maladjusted manager of The Commitments in the 1991 film of the same name, he was aware of the effect soul music has on us humans. Set in Dublin, Ireland, the movie (based on Roddy Doyle’s novel) charts the ups and downs of a bunch of ragtag musicians brought together to interpret soul classics for the working class.
Catfish Haven also interprets soul classics, but do so in the same way the White Stripes initially used Leadbelly and Robert Johnson—as a blue(s)print, utilizing the historical references as a jumping off point, rather than a crutch. At its core, Tell Me is a heartfelt homage to soul (Memphis, not Motown), Southern rock, and squandered relationships. It’s Creedence Clearwater Revival pilfering the Stax back catalogue; Buffalo Tom if they’d grown up with Pickett instead of the Pixies. And, at their worst, a bar band with a knack for brevity.
Ostensibly, Tell Me is a break up album. Leaving is a recurring theme, as are ruminations on reconciliation, and though there’s a certain naivety to the lyrics (“Maybe you were wrong / But if I was right / Tell me / Why can’t I sleep at night.”), front man George Hunter’s delivery, a raspy drawl (think a Midwestern Van Morrison), asserts that sometimes sincerity can compensate for simplicity. Not that simplicity is a bad thing. Soul is the music people understand after all—and complexity only carries us further away.
Sincerity and simplicity collide on album opener “Don’t Worry,” with Hunter beckoning us in by shouting “one more time,” riling the song (via a few well-timed and well-placed acoustic guitar chords) into a rollicking, foot-to-the-floor soul-stomp detailing a failed relationship (“We were doing alright / But alright ain’t enough / We had times / But then the times got tough”). The title track that follows takes the tempo, but not the quality, down a notch, making for a captivating opening couplet. Unfortunately, “Crazy for Leaving” can’t keep up the pace—as it trundles along with a romcom montage melody and lyrics to match (“I thought I could be / On my own / Chances I should have taken / Times I just kept on waiting”). It’s a disappointing MOR excursion that, along with later track, “Grey Skies,” puts a pedantic plodder in the midst of otherwise stellar work.
Salvation is found in the odd remnants of soul that crop up throughout Tell Me. The title track morphs, in the space of the opening thirty seconds, from “Dark End of the Street” into “Can I Get a Witness.” The horns and backing vocals of “Down by Your Fire” is pure Pickett, while the coda from “Don’t Worry” steals its rhythmic energy from Otis Day and the Knights’ version of “Shout.”
There’s a certain verisimilitude to Catfish Haven’s songs that gives them a sense of authenticity. When Hunter wails, with a Gospel glean, “I may not be a good man / But I ain’t so bad” you understand exactly where he’s coming from, much like you understood James Brown when he told you he felt good.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2006-09-19