When listening to Motherwhale, the words that come to mind are grandeur, ambition, extravagance; even pretentiousness. There's no doubting the fact that Cats and Cats and Cats like to create a sweeping, dramatic sound with as many instruments as possible, and they do so with obvious technical skill. Violins, mandolins, synths, horns, glockenspiel, an accordion and something that sounds like a singing saw can all be heard at some point contributing to the theatrical caterwaul, switching time signatures and darting in and out of each other with apparent ease. It sounds as though this album was created by a group of very well-trained music students who have been locked into a studio with a bunch of novels about pirates and some potent moonshine.
The first two songs are probably the least challenging and most conventional on the album, which is probably a good thing - if the insane time signature muddling started right from the start, I can imagine a few people might be scared away. The opener, 'Speckled Eggs for Speckled Lovers', serves almost as an intro to the second song, and doesn't really get going, but with warm violins and mixed gender harmonies in the vein of Stars, it's a pleasant listen, and it literally introduces the second track with a drum roll. A mass sing-along ensues, and we are introduced to the real Cats and Cats and Cats. 'Return to Danger Castle' is a pretty good representation of what the band seems to do best - beginning with the sing along, it transforms into an intriguing collection of hooks, intricate drumming, complicated guitars and whimsical lyrics about anemones.
The rest of the album see-saws between genres and influences in a manner which I can imagine could divide opinion. On one hand, your attention is clenched, and if the intention is to listen to the album in one sitting, it's hard to be bored by the onslaught of quirkiness that charges at you with its claws out. At the same time, some might find such a lack of continuity a little irritating. 'The Projectionist' and 'Christmas Lions' are both accordion-heavy sea shanties, the former of which, inexplicably, features a bad monkey impression, and the latter a female vocalist who sounds like the mutant spawn of Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom. 'Celebration' is well-crafted indie pop, with stabs of offbeat power chords, and is one of the highlights of the album, as is 'Match of the Day', which contains some very charming male-female call and response vocals.
The closer, an eleven minute epic by the name of 'Come Home', could have quite a lengthy review written about it on its own. Comprising of clicking guitars, splashy drums and falsetto harmonies taken straight from the Sigur Ros arsenal, it is far mellower than the preceding twelve tracks. It's like a tribute to post rock, with a number of changes in direction and melody which keep things interesting while sticking to the aesthetic of the song. Towards the end, everything is gradually pushed into the red until all that remains is a storm of distortion, then silence.
Motherwhale is an extraordinarily ambitious album, in which Cats and Cats and Cats throw everything they can at you, regardless of the consequences. It's courageous, but also rather naive and wide-eyed. I'd like to hear something more coherent, but I get the feeling that's just not how they roll. It's an album that doesn't have any particularly weak tracks; everything is good in its own way, but perhaps, after the first listen, Motherwhale's songs are better off enjoyed individually.