December 20, 2005

On Music: Catherine Wheel Still Spins

dickinson.jpgThe Catherine Wheel is, or was, a four-man British alternative band which began its career around 1990. Almost immediately, and for good reason, it gained a substantial audience and critical acclaim. Support from heavyweights like John Peel and Brian Eno didn't hurt. Catherine Wheel's sound was characterized by a sound that simultaneously combined darker, harder elements of new wave, the crunch of grunge, a bit of emo and a healthy slice of good old rock and roll. Every album capitalized on the strengths of the band yet their sound continued to evolve. Lush production and solid musicianship was the key. So much so that even their album of b-sides - collections which are usually varied and uneven - became widely seen as their greatest release. The band toured almost constantly behind each release.

The most recognizable element of almost any band is the vocalist. Catherine Wheel was no exception. Rob Dickinson's voice - a combination of the breathy clarity offered by David Gilmour or Peter Gabriel and Mark Lanegan's smoky howl with, perhaps, just a bit of Joe Cocker thrown in for good measure - provided the band's trademark. Since the release of Catherine Wheel's Wishville in 2000 and the band's subsequent hiatus, he's been largely silent. Until the release of Dickinson's debut album, Fresh Wine For The Horses.

The album begins with My Name Is Love, an upbeat, catchy song built on an acoustic rhythm with some great electric guitar work. The album takes on a more melancholy feel with Oceans, which provides more than enough evidence that Dickinson knows what to do with his voice. The acoustic, stripped down The Night follows. It's perhaps the most sincere song on the album built around Dickinson's voice punctuated by spare electric guitar work. Mutineer (yes, the Warren Zevon song), a combination love song and sea shanty follows. It sounds odd but despite the fact that it's less than two minutes long, it might be my favorite track on the album. The relatively ordinary Intelligent People follows and, while it doesn't blaze any new territory, it's catchy. Handsome deviates from the typical song structure and provides a flashback to Dickinson's work with Catherine Wheel. It's got a harder edge, it's bombastic and anthematic. The cabaret feel of Bathe Away stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album and, while different, it works. The Storm follows, with its dark, hard feel, also reminiscent of Catherine Wheel, although it is slightly uneven. Bad Beauty is mellow and dramatic but didn't do much for me. Don't Change is, however, quite the opposite. The first minute is ripped directly out of the Pink Floyd Handbook - which is really a good thing in this case. It's absolutely brilliant and appears to be the perfect closer to the album. Until Towering and Flowering kicks in. It reprises the slightly cabaret feel early on yet finds Dickinson really flexing his vocal muscle. The song eventually winds into more upbeat territory. Following a brief moment of silence, the album collapses in on itself and reprises the melody and lyrics explored earlier in Mutineer. It's a brilliant and emotional way to end a solid album.

Sure, there are parts and pieces of the album that could be better. Dickinson doesn't capitalize on some of the many strengths of his previous band but, then again, this isn't a band effort. Fresh Wine For The Horses is an admirable effort, deserving of a spin. Listeners who want more would do well to pick up Catherine Wheel's Happy Days, Like Cats & Dogs and Adam & Eve while they're at it.

New's the Tuesday before Christmas which means not even the record industry is stirring. Ryan Adams drops his third album of the year entitled 29 while Jamie Foxx unleashes Unpredictable which, I'm guessing, will be pretty predictable.

Posted by Chris at December 20, 2005 8:07 AM

What happened to Christmas Carols?

Posted by: Queen Of Ass at December 20, 2005 9:01 AM

Wow! I loved Catherine Wheel when they first came out. I'll have to check this out.

Posted by: Heather at December 20, 2005 9:43 AM

my sheltered musical palette has not heard of either catherine wheel or rob dickinson, but your description made me want to go buy it. you're an excellent critic!

that, and rob dickinson appears to be hot...

Posted by: misifoota at December 20, 2005 10:46 AM

OMG thats so funny-- i LOVE Catherine Wheel-- i have seen them a few time-- they are good sex music too!.. heehee-- but wow--cool!!

Posted by: 2faced at December 20, 2005 3:39 PM

I love "My Name is Love" which got a lot of radio play here a while back. Catherine Wheel was one of the few early 90s bands I really liked. I'm glad to know you like them too. Your description of Rob Dickinson's voice is excellent!

They just played "Black Metallic" on the radio. Just now. What are the odds of that?

Posted by: Ms. Q at December 20, 2005 4:31 PM

Also, in the Completely Useless Trivia department, I used to live next door to Brian Eno's cousin. I never met him though - he never visited. But, for three years I lived next to someone who shares his DNA. Cool, huh?

Posted by: Ms. Q at December 20, 2005 4:33 PM

I had never heard of them (*blush*) until I started dating Steve. He was/is a big fan and I have been meaning to get him FERMENT on CD as it was his fave from way back when. This one sounds intriguing though and I may have to pick it up. Alas his stocking is full and it may have to wait til our anniversary - that's only 40 days away or so so I should be able to get my sh*t together by then...

Posted by: carrster at December 20, 2005 11:35 PM