Cat’s Eyes – Cat’s Eyes

Cat’s Eyes is a brand-new project, a collaboration between opera singer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan, frontman of The Horrors. The premise sounds like the worst Hollywood pitch you could imagine – What if a Nick Cave wannabe and an opera singer carried on like they were Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra? Great Idea! Book Abbey Road! Weirdly, they did book Abbey Road and, even more weirdly, it works.

Badwan has come along way from his origins as a gaunt, fright-haired caricature, and he develops further on Cat’s Eyes. As with recent Horrors material, he slips into the guise of the dark-eyed romantic, though he is working against a backdrop of cinematic, sixties-indebted pop, rather than the austere post-punk of his day job. Zeffira plays the role of the ingénue to perfection, delivering her lines in a plain, almost childlike style that betrays none of her virtuosity.

It is undoubtedly a concept album, not in the Pete Townsend handicapped-kid-plays-pinball-really-well sense, but rather in the sense that the album is bound together by a strong aesthetic identity. This identity draws heavily on the likes of The Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Lee Hazlewood, and anything that Phil Spector ever produced. This is similar terrain to that mined by The Last Shadow Puppets, though Cat’s Eyes thankfully avoid straying into the pastiche that hampered that project, largely thanks to the chemistry of the main protagonists.

Badwan and Zeffira play off one another like Gainsbourg and Birkin, or Hazlewood and Sinatra. They interject in each other’s tales of love; love lost, love unrequited, sinister love, sweet love, in essence, all the major permutations of pop music’s eternal theme. Their intriguing interplay is played out against a lush backdrop, a blend of billowing strings and celestial choirs, offset by a swinging rhythm section; think French Riviera, La Dolce Vita, faded glamour, decadence. Between them the duo conjure some incredible atmospheres, proving themselves to be more than capable composers and arrangers, in addition to their undoubted abilities as performers.

Between them, Zeffira and Badwan are pure yin and yang, light and shade. The former drifts through songs in a similar manner to the late Trish Keenan of Broadcast, whilst the latter snarls and menaces, and generally chews the scenery. Their contrasting styles can be counted as both a strength and a weakness. For instance, versatility of Zeffira’s instrument and the precision with which she uses is impressive, but sometimes her voice sounds like yet another pretty thing amongst a litany of pretty things. At times, Badwan has the opposite problem; his depths-of-purgatory baritone, so used to jostling with the rattle and clang of his fellow Horrors, sometimes sounds a little lost and exposed. When it works though, it really works.

Cat’s Eyes opens the album in fine style, with a libidinal bass-and-drums pulse straight out of Swinging London. Badwan swaggers into view, intoning, ‘Have you seen her? She’s not the same girl’, sounding cooler than Sean Connery and George Best put together. Zeffira chimes in with appropriately feline observations about said girl. Compared with this, the tracks that follow, The Best Person I Know and I’m Not Stupid seem a little drab; no amount of ornate strings and choirs, however pretty they may be, can move the hips.

The other highlight is Over You, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, after Cat’s Eyes, it’s the second grooviest song on the record. This time its Zeffira takes the star turn, delivering a withering kiss-off to what sounds like an inadequate lover. As well as a stomping Motown beat, Over You benefits from a Happy Mondays-esque piano stabs and a gnarled, menacing guitar figure that drifts in and out. These are the two most distinct pieces of evidence in terms of proving that Cat’s Eyes was made in 2011 and not 1968, and perhaps it is no coincidence that they appear on one of the album’s standout songs.

This demonstrates the primary issue with Cat’s Eyes. In working with such a clear musical and aesthetic agenda, Badwan and Zeffira seem loath to reveal too much of themselves, and in doing so they fail to trust their instincts. Cat’s Eyes is a sizeable departure from the protagonists’ respective day jobs (particularly Badwan), and one gets the sense that they are like actors, trying not to let their masks slip. As a result, the music is often beautiful, but strangely neutral and the lyrics are delivered with a lack of conviction,. Cat’s Eyes is an album cut from lovely cloth, but its creators seem too concerned with making it sound ‘right’, rather than great.