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Ventilator Blues

by Johann Smith / 15.04.2011

“Jisses bra, maar jy rook baie,” says Gertjie Besselsen to me over his black label pint at Oxford Inn, Durbanville.
“By the way is it okay if I speak Afrikaans? You can translate it can’t you?”
“I’ll translate, Gertjie.”
At the table is fellow band member and co-founder of Mr Cat and the Jackal, Jacques du Plessis. The others are busy with their day jobs. But everyone’s simultaneously pleased and sick of interviews. This is their 9th in the last two weeks regarding their second album Sins and Siren Songs.

The reason for the popularity isn’t the fact that the album took 37 instruments and 13 months to create. Nor is it the album packaging, which is top drawer. Nope, I think it’s down to the fact that they finally employed a good publicist.
“Fuck, I’m happy we decided to get Rachelle Crous involved,” admits Gertjie. “She’s really pulled her weight.”

Black on white, Rachelle has a good product she’s pushing. Open up the Victorian CD box and you’ll be presented with cork holding the CD together and a lyric booklet inspired by an old children’s Bible (with that extra thin Bible page feel and line illustrations). The recording was done in Fresh Meat studio, Jacques’ own little practice space in Durbanville, so the usual time spent on doubt, was often spent being intoxicated.
“In between sober and drunk you release all that inhibition and you just want to jam. But it’s not like we fucked around. We worked hard.” recalls Jacques.

Mr Cat and the Jackal

And unlike the first album, Sins and Siren Songs was mixed and mastered by Darryl Torr, Zebra and Giraffe’s producer, an interesting choice that came via a recommendation from Jon Savage. So really, the album should be good. But is it?

Blending sinister pirate noise with sadness and truthful lyrics, yielding a kind of hybrid blues, that is at times sweet and at other times like an avalanche of boulders. Above everything, this release shows a precocious ambition. Mr Cat and the Jackal are an acquired taste, but their method doesn’t really deviate from classic rock theory, and it’s definitely not stick-in-your-head-pop. The album starts off with a fairy tale instrumental intro to the first song, “Avarice”, that could well be mistaken for something off a Tim Burton movie soundtrack, only with Chucky playing the drums like a steam train.

The second track and first single, “The Devil Always Wants To Dance”, is a ballad for a doomed world. Barging in with plodding percussion and a swinging accordion layered with matter-of-fact lyrics and advice like: “We all know life is like this / You expect a handshake / You receive a fist / Everyday is a kick in the face / But life in the mud is life at least.”

Mr Cat and the Jackal

Rolling their R’s Gertjie and Jacques attack each song with a mixture of fatalist acceptance and a disgust bordering on anger, while drowning everything else in a blues sentimentality. But throughout there is always the feeling of loss. The band has definitely matured but it feels like they’re constantly reaching for that invulnerable and definitively wise statement that will make us all go yes, it’s bad and it’s all over.

“Old Port Joan’s’ Django Reinhardt inspired guitar picking and images of an old woman drinking on her own, crying for the man who walked out the door this morning, is a fine example that the band are not singing about token ex-girlfriends anymore. They’ve gotten more accustomed to using unconventional instruments; the novelty has worn off, and they understand the process better.

Mr Cat and the Jackal

Beyond the tenth track the album becomes a bit samey, but that’s the only snag. So why cram 16 tracks on the album, why not save some for later?
“I hate bands that think they should only put on a certain amount of tracks.” Gertjie answers. “These are all our little children. We couldn’t do away with any of them.”

These are red-letter days for local music. But all these bands struggling to breakthrough in a small, saturated market is ultimately our gain. Invariably they all need to work harder for our attention. And with Sins and Siren Songs Mr Cat and The Jackal have clearly done that.

As a parting shot, Jacques leans forward to give me some advice. “This album,” he says, “is best enjoyed under the influence of earth-grown substances.”

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