ALBUM REVIEW: Catholic Action – ‘Celebrated By Strangers’

Three years after a very tight, very eloquent debut, eclectic Glaswegians Catholic Action are back with a second album that confirms some of the trends from their first outing while attempting in some ways something entirely different. In its eleven tracks, short and sweet for the most part – the longest song, perfectly situated at midpoint, reaches a square five minutes – Celebrated by Strangers knowingly calls back to a number of different influences, some of them drawn straight from the greatest glories of rock music history; weaves them all together in what is surprisingly a very coherent whole; and adds a layer of very contemporary reflection to it, which makes the record very relevant in its content, even where it is not unequivocally so in its sound. Then again, if a lesson is to be learnt from an album like this, is that types of sound that we are normally used to relegating in the golden past of rock music can indeed still be relevant, and very much so, today, at the start of a new decade that is seeing a flourish of interesting guitar bands which increasingly resembles a true renaissance.

An initial clue that Catholic Action’s sound and voice may be less conservative than one could posit at first comes with the objective difficulty in defining their sub-genre. While the album is proudly, undeniably rock, it is also very much of an omnivore in its choice of inspirations, citations, and model.

There was much of early-Seventies glam in the band’s debut, and that is still there: look no further, for instance, than the suggestively titled ‘I’m No Artist,’ which, aside from name-dropping the record’s title, also evokes a pretty distinct memory of Scary Monsters-era Bowie. But there is a much richer blend of other musical interferences in Celebrated by Strangers, so many that one could spend a considerable amount of time listing them all. It is perhaps past the point, in fact, to provide a full list; this is a record that is very much the sum of its parts, and its ability to merge very different suggestions together and shape them into something coherent and recognisable is one of its strengths.

But one could have fun identifying an echo of pacing and guitar sound reminiscent of The Clash in the bold, almost-roaring ‘One Of Us‘; or a surprising interference from ’80s-style electronic pop in ‘People Don’t Protest Enough,’ a subtly political piece with an ironic anti-capitalistic vein (“Won’t you tell me what to buy?”) and an absolutely delightful use of synth. The spirit of the Beatles, psychedelic era, is heavily present in the broader, slow and immersive, ‘There Will Always Be A Light,’ and elsewhere – and many more could be added to the roll call, if one wanted to indulge in the exercise. ‘Grange Hell (South London in D),’ an album opener that starts and ends with pure guitar wailing, perfectly illustrates the balance between the classic and the chaos.

In all of this, Catholic Action’s own voice emerges with varying degrees of intensity, and if a criticism is to be levelled at the record, it is that sometimes it bends under the weight of its musical ancestors; but there are many sparks of the unexpected, and when the band’s voice comes through loud and clear, it is a fresh and inspired one, animated by a hint of sarcasm, a very contemporary attention to the political moods of our day and time, and a love of both the danceable and the anthemic. Of these two categories, for instance, ‘Witness,’ jokingly introduced by a protestation of “I’m not singing that!” belongs to the first, making good use of a syncopated rhythm and electronic infiltrations; ‘Another Name For Loneliness,’ with its hearty vocals and very recognisable riffs, to the second – in another time and place this one could have been a chart-topper.

There are threads connecting all parts of this record like a fil rouge of sorts: a very recognisable kind of snappy, clapping drum sound, for instance, and a very political attention to the mood of the time that makes many of the lyrics immediately relatable. ‘Yr Old Dad‘ is one of the most effective representations of the generational disconnect very visible in society nowadays that I have ever heard: “Your old Dad is never around/ Your old Dad will never be found,” the lyrics note, capturing a hard-to-describe mood that we’re however all too familiar with. ‘And It Shows,’ strategically placed at midpoint with its slower, more mellow sound, is another mood snapshot which will resonate with many, sounding like the kind of lounge bar tune you may hear after retreating to nurse a cocktail at the end of a night not quite gone to plan, and with the lyrics to match: “I spend the evening all alone, and it shows […] I spend my evening getting old, and it shows”. The sound might have a retro vibe, but there is something distinctly 2020 in the snapshots these songs paint.

Elsewhere, the political vein becomes clearer and more direct, and acquires a sharper bite. The last track in the album, ‘Four Guitars (For Scottish Independence),’ never openly references its title subject, but in the midst of a sound that once again owes much to the Seventies, the lyrics vibrate with a distinct irony: “When you’re feeling under the weather, and you’ve reached the end of your tether, go away”. Perhaps most poignant of all, and certainly a personal favourite, is ‘Sign Here,’ a ballad of sorts with a hint of a Beatles vibe, a sharp ability for something akin to sarcasm, and a clear opinion on the state of the music industry that gives a voice to an increasingly widespread frustration among artists and audiences alike: when the song speaks of an “indie-pop sweatshop,” it is hard to pretend not to know what it’s all about.

Celebrated by Strangers is an album with a lot to say, and a fairly clear idea of how to say it. It has many respectable ancestors, so many in fact that at times its own voice may be slightly suffocated by theirs. But the voice is there, and it comes out clear enough when it’s needed. And the album has gained a complexity and maturity its predecessor didn’t have, making Catholic Action excellent candidates as representatives of a new wave of classic rock that is, one would hope, yet to come.

Catholic Action’s Celebrated by Strangers is due for release on 27th March 2020 via Modern Sky. Various formats and bundles are available to pre-order here.

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Chiara Strazzulla
Chiara was born in Sicily and lives in Cardiff, where she is a freelance journalist and teacher of Classics. She is an internationally published novelist and has collaborated with a variety of publications both in English and Italian. She has been a music lover her whole life, and her taste in music ranges from glam rock to punk by way of blues and country.

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