As someone who listens to a lot of music and reviews it on occasion, there's nothing quite like discovering a new artist with their first CD. Don't get me wrong, it's lots of fun to hear an artist you like a lot clicking on all cylinders, but the pleasure in listening to someone like, say, Justin Roberts, is that of hearing a sound you and your family have sort of come to expect performed wonderfully. Putting a CD into the CD drive and hearing a new, unfamiliar sound and voice -- that can be thrilling when that sound and voice click.
Cat and a Bird is fairly new to the scene -- the band's website isn't even set up as of this writing. But their self-titled debut bristles with an energy and self-assurance that pays dividends. Their sound -- mixing elements of folk, rock, electronic beats, and gypsy violin -- sometimes sounds both 100 years old and from 100 years in the future. It is impossible not to smile and bop your head while listening to these songs about the animal kingdom. From the album opener "Bee Jive," featuring some nice steel guitar work, to "Surfer Turtle," all sunny and filled with "la"s, to "Kangaroo," which (appropriately) bounces along carried by Emily Chimiak's vocals -- there's something to discover in each track. Chimiak's musical partner in the band Vasily Taranov ably handles most of the instruments (the violin is Chimiak's), throwing in ukulele and upright bass and more. I actually think many of the best tracks are at the end of the album -- I'm thinking of the dance tracks "Lion and the Challengers" and "Night Owl."
I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the lyrics as well. I hear a lot of "educational" music that is easily forgotten, but on songs like "Platypus," with its Tin Pan Alley, it memorably sings about the title character by mentioning what it's not ("He's got a beak, neither a cat nor bird / he's got mystique, although he looks absurd."). Nobody will pass their preschool zoology class as a result to listening to these songs, but the songs give some character and personality to the animals they sing about, and matched with the melodies and rhythms, they'll get enough spins to perhaps remember what they're dancing to.
I can't take credit for discovering Cat and a Bird (that distinction, I believe, goes to Kathy O'Connell and subsequently Bill Childs). But I get just as big a kick out of hearing a new sound as anyone, especially a sound with as much style as this band's. It's a new sound, and one that clearly will gain a much wider audience than it has right now. Without a doubt, this is one of the year's best debuts, but more than that, it's one of the year's best albums, period. Highly recommended.