Seven years it’s taken Welsh well-to-dos Catatonia to be heard in the states, and the wait has seated them royally, with a foxy Cerys Matthews adorning the covers and pages of publications around the country, at the peak of all her sex-kitten reputed glory for the U.S. release of their appropriately named album Equally Cursed and Blessed. And it’s not as if there’s anything deeply intriguing or outstanding about the life and times of the band—indeed the most interesting things you’ll read about this most famous woman of Wales are her chemical thirst and the time she threw her own television out a window—it’s just that Catatonia have this nefarious knack for pampering the raw spots in so straightforward an intellectual and tuneful manner that their music is, quite simply, nothing but pop and everything bad pop pretends to be.
They’ve skipped and drunk and pashed and thrashed, this Catatonic crew, along a multicolored brick road with Cerys in the lead, singing string-soaked songs on their way to visit the elusive Wizard in search of . . . the secret . . . of . . . happiness? Only unlike dummy Dorothy in her bright red shoes, Cerys, clad in black leather and tiara, has known all along there is only normality festering in the castle at the end, and she’s just been going along for the fun of it. Because life is about feeling good and not overthinking everything, she said once, and “tedium is overcome from obscurity, through melody” she plainly sings in “Karaoke Queen” on Cursed and Blessed.
Though it’s now the chest-thrashing energy, savage distortion, and continuous brain-pump drum beats of songs like “Road Rage” that lure in the chart-driven crowds, it’s the sweet, juicy innards of Catatonia’s creations that make grown men sway in patriotic rapture. What has ensured Matthews her jewel-encrusted throne in Brit-pop history, what drew the sellout surprisingly male-infested (and predominantly Welsh/Brit/Aussie) crowd to the Bowery Ballroom some months back, is the promise of sweet innocence—albeit in a smoky room. It seems Cerys was a child whose parents informed her early on that the ring of rosies fell down because the pockets full of posies were poison: the kinda kid who knew Santa never existed but left a tooth under her pillow for the fairy to exchange for treats.
In “Strange Glue” on 1998’s International Velvet, Cerys’s crowd dances for real freedom, clenching their hands to some gritty guitar riffs and then palm-pushing feedback as she lauds, “When faced with my demons/I clothe them and feed them/And I smile/Yes, I smile/As they’re taking me over.” But what Catatonia continue to do best is stroke male-ish egos with bow-stroked backgrounds. In the new album’s “Nothing Hurts,” purest of pure, Catatonia have come as close to the castle as anyone’s gonna get—and it was this particular flying-through-clouds-with-violins-and-rolling-drum invention that had three chunky men draped in a Welsh flag at the Bowery lolling from side to side to side. “Everything is beautiful/and nothing hurts . . . All around is wonderful/And nothing harms me at all, in my world” floats the girlish Cerys’s voice in the band’s most euphoric creation yet.
Little Miss Matthews’s lollipops were bitter as can be on the outside, but she always sucked on through for the tangy inner explosion. Her candy-smart sounds project us into a certain fairy-tale state—husky and fiery and then fairy-floss vocals expressing the woman state of a once bold-mouthed girl, all red-and sugar-lipped: the pest in the ring-a-rosy who pulls hardest on everyone’s hands and then cackles as they all! fall! down! Cerys was the teenage buddy of all the boys secretly intrigued by the princesses who won their sexual hearts; now she’s famous for topping British charts with her insight into the hard-talking, softhearted ’90s female icon in “Mulder & Scully”: “I’d rather be liberated/I find myself captivated/I’d rather stay bold and lonely/I dream I’m your one and only” (originally on International Velvet, now added to the U.S. version of Equally Cursed and Blessed).
The Catatonic colors run everywhere, through sunshine yellow to pooh brown; Catatonia are so OK with reality they live it like it’s fantasy, and nothing is too serious or bad that they can’t talk or joke or dream about it. In EC&B‘s “Bulimic Beats,” Cerys passes up the opportunity to dwell on a much psychologized disease, and the music is heavenly as she stands in her kitchen, “familiar with every brand . . . where I witness custard’s last stand.” The party has twirled and rolled through thorn-edged gardens, pigtails and overalls all awry, and landed in this monstrous musical city “Dazed, Beautiful & Bruised” (as another masterpiece puts it). Listening in is rather like swimming in a solar-heated pool where icy patches always remind you that before long, the golden warmth will be cold, and eager fingertips all wrinkled and goose-bumped. But it’s necessary—and worth it, for all the warm spots.