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Stolen Diamonds (Two Shoes)

(A version of this review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald)

There’s this line in cricket that a batsman’s strength and weakness are often the same thing, that the stroke which garners them the most runs can be the best way to get them out. Ask Marcus Harris. The same can happen in music. Ask The Cat Empire.

The multi-style, brass-forward, dance-encouraging, grabbing-for-life Melbourne band have always been one of the best live experiences precisely because their ability to swing from Latin to funk to punchy pop to even flashes of West African makes you want to move, grin and just enjoy without having to think too much about what you’re hearing.

But what happens when the moving stops and you switch on the brain? The problem is at home you can’t help but notice The Cat Empire have great moves, and know where to draw from (hello Paul Simon in Bow Down To Love) but not genuinely strong songs. And sometimes, as with the album’s unfortunate choice of opener, the imitation Curtis Mayfield Kila, some quite poor songs.

It’s not because they’re just interested in being a mindless party band either. There’s a very strong social conscience here, the attention to detail within their stylistic moves show their interest in music from outside the narrow English/American/Australian corridor is not superficial, and they can build the scaffolding of songs well.

But the frames are hollow; these songs don’t have heart or guts. Whether it is the Specials-like suited reggae of Barricades, the barrio soul of Adelphia, Saturday Night’s Cubans-in-New York zest, or the exuberant funk of the title track, the moves are there, the playing is very fine, but nothing last once you’ve stopped moving.

Get them in a sweaty room though …

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