Katzenjammer is like that. They're capable of immense energy and crowd-rocking songs, like "To the Sea", "Le Pop", the rollicking, head-bobbing "Demon Kitty Rag", "Hey Ho On the Devil's Back", the twangy "Ain't No Thang" (a Norwegian folk band playing American country music? Sure, why not) and the softer "Play, My Darling, Play". The band plays 15-20 instruments between them and switches up between songs frequently, so no two tracks sound exactly the same. But they also have the freedom to do softer, less peppy songs, like the wonderfully disturbing "Tea with Cinnamon", "Virginia Clemm" or the amazing "Wading In Deeper".
The genius of Katzenjammer, for me, lies in the stories they tell. The songs are almost invariably wonderful and completely unique; "To the Sea" sounds nothing like "Play, My Darling, Play", which sounds nothing like "Demon Kitty Rag". Some songs sound like the band stepped right out of a carnival, some out of a funeral; they have pianos, accordions, acoustic guitar and what sounds for all the world like a pipe organ on "Tea With Cinnamon". And the music is almost invariably good. I don't like "Virginia Clemm" much, and "Mother Superior" gets a bit too heavy and grating at times, but when you're trying lots of new things, there's no shame in a miss or two.
But while the music is excellent on its own, it's the stories that make Katzenjammer unique. (Most of them are sad, disturbing or evil, so obviously I'm going to love them.) Take "Tea with Cinnamon". Conducted in a light, deceptively airy tone, the song brings to mind some kind of sunlit English parlor, but one where something is subtly, terribly wrong. "Wake again, to tea with cinnamon, some honey on a spoon, it is almost noon", murmurs the singer, before saying "Walking down the stairs to shed my morning tears". The song only gets more unnerving. Something has gone terribly wrong in this person's life, something that's left her alone and unwell; later in the song, she (brilliantly) says "I am very sane". "It's so beautiful," she sighs in the closing lines, "but it's not real." What isn't? The sunlit parlor feeling? What happened to this person? It's stupendously captivating to me.
Not all of the songs tell stories like that, but the ones that do... man. "Wading in Deeper" is stunningly dark, about a woman who copes with tragedy by walking deeper and deeper into a river, almost a funeral chorus kind of song. "Hey Ho On the Devil's Back" is kind of a classic European folk story, about a woman accepting a ride from the Devil and paying for it. "Play, My Darling, Play", well, I have no idea what it's about, but it's a wonderful song. And then there's "To the Sea", my favorite in the whole album.
"To the Sea" is the ultimate dive-bar song. You can imagine some waterfront crowd around 1 AM, laughing and talking to each other, a haze of cigarette smoke in the air and an unknown band playing on a creaky stage. Perhaps the crowd was losing interest and Katzenjammer wanted to wake them up, because the first three piano chords come in like a battering ram. Wham! Bam! Slam! Glissando! And we're off! Some sloppy-drunk sailor spits out his beer, people turn around towards the stage, conversations die out and the singer strides out to center stage, wearing elbow-length velvet gloves and a Victorian petticoat. The music, once again, is rollicking. It's a very short song, not even two and a half minutes, but there's time for a whole world of emotion. It's sung by a woman who's lost her husband at sea, and she's not a weeping widow, she's angry! It's hard to describe the impact of her words, tightly delivered and bitterly fast. And so evocative!
"The wind is a-whippin' through the open doors,I mean, come on! Later on, "I was standing on the shore as the sky grew dark/With a hand on a Bible and a hand on my heart." Later still: "Because all I have left is the voice of the wind, blowing through the doors of our house". That's ridiculously evocative. And it's delivered so quickly, and so full of fire.
Speaking of the sea and the rolling' waves
Maybe there's a ship at the bottom now
Or struggling on the surface with a cry for help
Wish I could forget and let the years go by
Wish I could escape from my dreams of you!"
That's Katzenjammer: brilliantly crazy, able to tell wonderful stories, outlandishly talented. Their second album, A Kiss Before You Go, is to me a bit less exciting than their spinning-off-in-all-directions debut; it's calmer, a bit tamer, full of slightly blander pop songs like "Rock, Paper, Scissors", "I Will Dance (When I Walk Away)" and "Cocktails and Ruby Slippers". The frenetic energy is a bit less, although the talent and creativity are still there. I would tentatively recommend that one, but full-throatedly recommend Le Pop. It's one of the most creatively inspired records I've ever heard.