Caveat: A request to review KateGoes’ debut album Animals Who Want To Be Other Animals was met with an express stipulation from the band that they would sanction a review only upon the precondition that it be written in a (to quote) ‘geordie accent‘. Whether this represents a progressive female re-appropriation of the male critical voice or is a matter of ethics in indie music journalism is open to debate.
The Geordie version ran yesterday, and an standard English dialect version follows below the cut.
KateGoes are a gawky cutecore band from Birmingham comprising vocalist / pianist Kate Thompson, clarinettist Beth Hopkins and guitarist / squeaky toy manipulator Susie Minnear. I first saw them back in 2008 in Leeds as the support act for Jeffrey Lewis and was impressed by their aggressively winsome combination of irreverent whimsy, three-piece harmonies and bolshy, haphazard energy.
KateGoes have actually been together for a decade now. In the past they’ve performed with four / five members – the loss of their drummer going some way to explaining the long gestation of this album. There have also been claims of forming ‘a puppy theatre troupe called Dogma who examine different human psyches through scientific experiments, non scientific experiments, the illicit reading and reinacting (sic.) of personal diaries, live meat sculpture and having their fuzzy wickle tummies tickled’. Such bold and triumphalist claim-making is typical of vocalist and lyricist Kate Thompson (a similarity she shares with Cardiacs’ Tim Smith and their bureaucratic spokespeople The Alphabet Business Concern) who might be considered to be what is known in common parlance as ‘a bustling fellow’ – which is to say, a person who bristles with creative energy to the degree that their energy is not easily restricted to a single productive channel. The tradition that the band perform each of their shows around a theme in full costume (such as ‘KateGoes Over the Rainbow’ and ‘KateGoes Stone Age’) is testimony to this. In this way, KateGoes reminds me a little of the similarly rambunctious Tilly and the Wall, who use a tap dancer (Jamie Pressnall) instead of a drummer. While Tilly and the Wall are ex-primary school teachers, KateGoes sound more like prodigiously talented primary school children… although their lyrics often cleverly play this sense of innocent off against more troubling subject matter and ambivalent emotions. The band are also close compatriots of Misty’s Big Adventure (themselves no strangers to dress-up) and have often toured together. Their best known song is undoubtedly ‘All We Want to Do is OH!’, known better as the theme tune for BBC3 teenage sitcom Coming of Age, the puerile underachieving brother of E4’s The Inbetweeners. More on this later!
Before the late-2014 release of Animals Who Want To Be Other Animals (from here on in Animals for short) KateGoes had released two eps, Hi How Am I? and the Happy Dancing EP – charming and spirited releases marred only by their brevity. Some of the tracks on Animals date back to nearly a decade ago in original composition, so arguably they recall a time when bands like The Mouldy Peaches were popular and Juno was in the cinema and basically there was a whole spate of music deeply indebted to the Velvet Underground song ‘I’m Sticking With You‘. Fortunately, KateGoes are singular enough that they don’t sound whatsoever out-of-place amongst today’s releases… or rather, there’s probably never been a time in which they wouldn’t have sounded a little gloriously out-of-place. In fact, one of the surprises of the album is quite how well it holds together as a whole, considering its difficult conception. It feels as free and breezy as a debut recorded by a new band across a couple of afternoons. This is to its credit.
One thing holding Animals together is the reprisal of the album’s opening ditty, ‘Austrian Clarinets’, that later re-emerges as ‘Bavarian Clarinets’. At first I was sceptical that a short 13-track album (one track of which is silent) could justify this repetition, especially considering that only one of the tracks is longer than five minutes. However, this infectious little number provides useful anchorage for the album and is a neat potted encapsulation of KatesGoes’ style. ‘Austrian Clarinets’ begins with a jaunty major-scale clarinet tune accompanied by the shrill chirruping of birds. It sounds like it could have been the theme song for some 1970s children’s television programme. Personally I immediately imagined The Herbs‘ Parsley the Lion frolicking amongst the foliage. At the thirteenth second the clarinet hits what sounds almost like a duff note, introducing the tiniest sense of disturbance into the air. Then the tune resumes. As it continues, other instruments join the fray; keyboard and drums bouncing melodically along to the melody. The tempo gets a fraction faster. The drumming sounds like it should belong to a much heavier song, it’s almost breakbeat. The tweeting is suddenly unpleasantly louder. Then, scuzzy distortion, laser sounds and the song ends with a piano crash. The effect is like being a toddler spinning round and round and the moment at which the experience goes from joyous to nauseating is imperceptible… or riding a fairground carousel and having your horse come loose from its moorings. Musically a point of comparison that floats to mind is Grandaddy‘s memorable ‘A.M. 180’, with its mix of harmony and discordance. ‘Bavarian Clarinets’ is the same tune but with the drums adopting a military roll-call style and the whistle of birds replaced by the quacking of ducks. Whether this is an accurate reflection of the difference between Austrian and Bavarian musical traditions I do not know.
The track that works as a good litmus test for whether you’ll enjoy Animals (and by extension KateGoes) or not is appropriately enough the title track ‘Animals Who Want To Be Other Animals’. This is KateGoes at their most militantly whimsical, telling the tale of three animals who wish to be other animals (a dog who wants to be a dinosaur, a mouse who wants to be an army ant and a frog who wants to be a porcupine, I believe). The verses comprise a sweet melody with clip-clopping percussion, plinky-plonk keyboard and trills of guitar. Backing vocalists (presumably Beth and Susie) provide impressively convincing animal noises. The chorus kicks into a much faster tempo with yelps and exclamations from Beth and Susie, which are basically delightful and one of the things KateGoes does better than just about any other band. It’s irresistibly daft and oddly disorienting. There’s an obvious disconnect between the animals’ lives and their dreams… indeed, they seem to want to continue with their animal-appropriate behaviours, but in the form of other animals. So, the mouse sings ‘I should have been an army ant eating mouldy cheese and chewing bits of paper up’. Likewise, the dog wants to eat her own poo and play with her toys, which sounds far more like (gross!) canine behaviour (yeah, I’m a cat person!) than something any self-respecting dilophosaurus would choose to partake in. The song is both utterly throw-away and genuinely bewildering and plain odd. It recalls the curious digressions of Johnny Cash’s Children’s Album (1975) such as ‘Why is a Fire Engine Red?’ and ‘The Dinosaur Song’, in which the old timey voice of wisdom asks the listener if we had dinosaurs as pets, ‘could they get along with a horse and a cow?’ Closer to home, KateGoes’ occasional forays into what might be called “novelty songs” (which is, I think, an uncharitable and patronising term… and kind of reduces the sheer weirdness of these songs) is similar to those performed by comedy singer-songwriter Jay Foreman, such as ecological treatise ‘My Car Runs on Caterpillar Sick’ and the disquieting ‘Skin Sofa’. Like Johnny Cash and KateGoes, Foreman also has a song concerning dinosaurs.
‘Walking The Dog’ is similarly animal-centred malarkey and possibly my favourite track on the album, as it combines utter ridiculousness with an undercurrent of melancholy, which KateGoes excel at. It sounds like a bolshy knees-up half-way between Cardiacs and Parklife-era Blur. It has lots of interjections and sound effects and is a wonderfully dense two-minutes of pop genius coupled to an embarrassingly catchy skank rhythm. Kate asks plaintively, ‘Why do I get so upset? Could it be because we don’t have a pet?’ with Beth and Susie joining in sweetly high-pitched harmonies. It also includes a sample of what I suspect to be Barbara Woodhouse’s dog training seminars (memorably parodied in the Simpsons episode ‘Bart’s Dog Gets an “F”‘). ‘What’s One More Day of Crying’ is a twee whistle-a-long in which Kate informs the listener: ‘My belly is swollen, my head only flops, I’m going to rip off my face till it stops’. Apart from this troubling Residents-style interjection, the song presently a motley assortment of outcasts and ne’er-do-wells that recalls Cardiacs’ ‘In a City Lining’, a song that profiles Malcolm the bastard who acts like Emporer Nero and Peter, the man who pretends to be a super hero. Here the ‘butch balding bastard’ (!) is Billy, one of the singer’s very best friends, who has a problem with pulling at his hair. There’s also Fred the baker, who exploits his girlfriend Carol’s yeast infection to puff up his bread. These might read like horrorshow character portraits from the likes of Chris Morris’ Blue Jam but they’re delivered in such disarmingly lovely tones, that the effect is charming and funny, rather than alienating.
This is a delicate line to tread however and personally I think it’s crossed with the enthusiastically gristly and disconcertingly chipper ‘Human Safari’, which tells the tale of a big game hunter who turns to humans as his newest prey. This is actually the plot of the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game, which aimed for philosophical horror, but viewed today is probably experienced as a rather staid and campy farce. KatesGoes’ song mentions a flayed human rug from South Africa and jewellery made from teeth… images that recall too closely genuine atrocities committed by despotic warlords for me to find funny. The contrast of sweet and sour topples into the grotesque, with the song’s upbeat harmonies and energetic and poppy guitar rhythms. To be fair, the song contains a satirical edge, with the narrator boasting, ‘No-one could ever stop me, I’ve got much much too much money’ – a line that recalls a previous KateGoes lyric that a person can be anything they want to be… as long as they have ‘enough money’. The main enjoyment I take from ‘Human Safari’ (in spite of a certain queasiness) is imagining it sung by Victorian big game hunter Charles Victor Alexander Peel, the man responsible for the bulk of Exeter Museum’s taxidermy collection. Of the unfortunate dik-dik (a small antelope) shot by Peel and preserved in the museum, the man wrote in his diary: ‘Upon encountering the Dik-Dik I was so struck by its ludicrous appearance that I could hardly shoot straight.’ Peel was certainly a man who would have enjoyed the sordid past-time of the ‘human safari’, at least by my reckoning.
The songs described above are perhaps the most fool-about on the album, which also includes a number of straighter ballads and love songs. I am unable to write much about the impossibly lovely ‘Heartbeart’. For me it is inextricably intertwined with memories of a phenomenally ill-advised relationship I had with a seventeen-year-old lass when I was twenty one – an age gap I now consider utterly inappropriate and basically squicky but seemed acceptable at the time (although of course this is with the hindsight of a person near approaching his 30s). ‘Heartbeat’ was “our song”, in as much as we had one. It has adorably cutesy couplets such as ‘you’re the bless you for my sneeze’, ‘you’re the rice in my krispies’. It’s sung with great delicacy and contains the greatest employment of a squeezy dog toy that I have ever heard. My aforementioned ex-partner also made innuendo out of one of the lines, which is one of the other reasons I have for finding it hard to listen to. But just because the song is lost to me forever doesn’t mean it should be for anybody else!
‘Scribble Me Down’, which is the second track on the album, is a groovy piece of kitschy 1960s-throwback pop with a bass line that sounds like it belongs in a song by The Jam. Musically, it’s a joy, but the lyrics are curiously self-negating… the singer asking the song’s target to colour her in and give her freckles cutely evokes the exploits of 1989 children’s cartoon heroine Penny Crayon, who could bring to life anything she was able to draw. As the lyrics progress however they seem to describe a one-sided emotionally-dependent relationship: ‘I fall down if you don’t prop me up. I wanted you to create me so I turned into a baby. Carve me out and then smooth me down with your sculptor’s hands.’ This is the same disturbing territory previously charted by The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, another utterly lovely sounding song that becomes more and more disturbing the more you think about it. Meanwhile, ‘Love On Your Own’ is more straight-forwardly palatable, a pleasing strum-a-long guitar ballad about unreciprocated passion and suburban ennui. In parts it sounds like something penned by The Shaggs, though more conventionally tuneful (I suspect that KateGoes like The Shaggs). Also, I can’t work out whether it contains a reference to Channel 4’s archaeological excavation-fest Time Team.
‘Complicated Head’ is a restless, jazzy ode to the creative struggle. Assuming that Kate wrote the lyrics it helps support my earlier claims about her feverish but sporadic creative energy, with Kate exclaiming ‘There is so much stuff I want to put into this song that I make it much too crammed and it all comes out wrong.’ Appropriately enough the song is crammed to the gills with instrumentation (both backwards and forwards), little flurries of orchestration and percussion, sound effects and all sorts of malarkey! It’s very engaging but a little overwhelming, which was likely the intention. It sounds rather a lot like Frank Zappa at his most manic and undisciplined. Indeed, Zappa’s an artist that KateGoes list as an influence. Certainly, the man’s early hit ‘Wowzie Zowie’ in particular sounds like it could easily have been written by the band (as Michael Stipe said of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’, ‘This isn’t one of ours… but it might as well be.’) ‘Complicated Head’ also name-checks Jeffrey Lewis (the anti-folk artist I saw KateGoes supporting these many years ago) and Biff Rose, the American comedian and singer-songwriter. The love of both artist situates KateGoes as a particularly earnest band, which might account for why the last track on the album is separated from the rest by a full one minute and twenty of silence. Again, more on this later!
The other two ballads on Animals are ‘No-one Can Stop the Rain’ and ‘Stubborn Little Mule’. The former sounds like one of the more lo-fi offerings from Mr. Bungle’s California as sung by Karen Carpenter. It’s a very pretty, even elegiac composition. It feels like looking at postcards of rainy Birmingham on a sunny beach. It’s a lovely wash of sound that is somewhat atypical for the group, but a very pleasurable inclusion on the album. It’s also positioned right towards the album’s tail-end like all the best album tracks (R.E.M.’s ‘Country Feedback’!) should be. Finally, in danger of being as precious as Pitchfork, to my ears ‘No-one Can Stop the Rain’ also recalls Japanese experimental electro-pop duo Picky Picnic’s haunting and beautiful ‘Aischu No Melody (The Setting Sun in Africa)’. Picky Picnic are, like KateGoes, a band that were irrepressibly and simultaneously faintly troubling. If any members of the band are reading this, then I’d thoroughly recommend that they give Picky Picnic a listen, if they haven’t already!
Animals‘ remaining ballad ‘Stubborn Little Mule’ deserves to be a successful hit single. It has a jerking MIDI-tastic tune, accompanied by background squelching, ringing and thrumming. It is a hurdy-gurdy song about being a stubborn little mule. I find the self-effacing lyrics deeply relateable to a pretty uncomfortable degree and I suspect I won’t be alone in that: ‘My brain lives in its own brain so quit pulling at my reins. I am blind although I see. Dragging heavy loads through a blinkered eternity. ‘Cause I’m a stubborn little mule.’ Eek! Alongside ‘Walking the Dog’ it is my favourite track on the album and justifies its purchase alone. A masterpiece of tiny yet epic proportions. Bravo KateGoes!
Animals needs ‘The Silence’, which is simply a track of silence, even though including a minute-odd long track simply of silence on an album that clocks in at just over half-an-hour seems cheeky at best. Of course, John Cage has already famously performed and recorded an entirely silent composition, ‘4′33″’, the interest of which lies in both its concept and also in the heightened appreciation of audience sounds and noises while listening to the piece played in a concert hall. Listening to ‘The Silence’ on headphones for the first time I mostly expected to be suddenly surprised by a very loud noise and so sat through the track in a state of intense fear and apprehension. This likely says more about me than KateGoes. Of course, KateGoes are not the only band to include a wholly silent song on their record. A quick glance at Wikipedia‘s comprehensive list of ‘silent musical compositions’ reveals artists as varied as Télépopmusik, Wilco, Orbital, John Denver, Coheed and Cambria, Knife Party and Coil as having done the same. My favourite example of the silent composition is perhaps closer to what KateGoes are attempting, which is on Jack Off Jill’s wonderful Clear Hearts Grey Flowers, on which fifty-two silent six-second tracks separate the album’s penultimate song from a cover of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’, making the latter stand-out all the more (helpfully it also happens to be a brilliant cover!)
So, on Animals we have the beautiful and melancholic ‘No-One Can Stop the Rain’ ending the album proper, then we get ‘The Silence’ and then, finally, we have ‘All We Wanna Do is OH!’, which is ridiculous, but simultaneously awesome. It’s a sugary infuriating semi-ironic pop celebration of wanton teenage debauchery. The fact that on the band’s MySpace the song is accompanied by an image of a caricatured Paris Hilton from South Park is pretty telling. Imagine a far more chaste version of an offering by gleefully trashy electropop outfit Millionares (more in terms of vibe and thematics that anything else… the lyrics to ‘Party Like a Millionaire’, for instance, are on a whole other plateau of obscenity). It’s as stupid and repetitive as any track from Sparks’ In Outer Space and achieves a similar effect in evoking the absolute shallowness of youth culture, while simultaneously not acting as an outright condemnation. However cynical lines like ‘I’m so drugged up I can’t move, I’m so made-up I can’t see’ come across, the song is also genuinely fun and the ‘Ohs’ are… kind… of… fetching? /shame (okay so ‘All We Wanna Do is OH!’ is not Björk’s ‘Cocoon’, but it isn’t a million miles away from Gina G’s ‘Just A Little Bit’).
Basically, the song is a perfect theme tune to the mindless and derivative teen comedy, for which is was originally intended. My understanding is that KateGoes won a competition to pen the opening credits tune of Coming of Age, a competition also entered by spiky pop impresario Luke Leighfield. However, when I saw Mr. Leighfield live I thought he treated his drummer rather shoddily and while there is much to admire about the man’s compositions, I am doubtful he turned out anything as wonderfully demented and grubby as ‘All We Wanna Do’.
It’s a surprisingly glib and ironic coda to an often thoughtful and quietly moving album, which I suspect is why KateGoes chose to quarantine it with a wall of silence. But then again, KateGoes are a contrary band. Delightful, but vaguely irritating; charming, but sometimes obnoxious and alienating. Brilliant and musically assured, but throw-away and careless. This spirit of irreverence unites KatesGoes with perhaps their closest fore-bearers The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, another group with a particularly British sense of whimsy. It’s these contradictions that will ensure that I will continue returning to Animals Who Want To Be Other Animals for a long time yet.
Finally, for the record (and in a spirit of transparency), I am a human being who would very much like to be a toucan.
P.S. While KateGoes currently ostensibly exists as a three-piece of Kate, Susie and Beth, Animals Who Want To Be Other Animals also contains stellar contributions from former bandmates and collaborators Grandmaster Gareth, Joe Thompson, Bird and Sam Minnear. Joe’s mandolin is particularly gratifying and at the liner notes attest, Gareth’s drumming on ‘Stubborn Little Mule’ is indeed ‘phenomenal’.