It’s good to deal in extremes, those absolutes that vapourise any opposition and make the middle ground a no-man’s land. OK, take that argument to its logical conclusion and you’re left with Marilyn Manson and Vanilla, but, nevertheless, bands that don’t fall into the ‘love ’em or hate ’em’ discourse are always going to have to yell extra hard to be heard. Tarred with the indie brush, even Cerys Matthews, the girl with the voice of gold, couldn’t stop Catatonia being seen as the pop equivalent of a pint of cider. Nice to have around, but hardly the last word in desperate thrills. Now, though, it’s time to take those preconceptions and let Cerys grind them under her platform shoes. Drama, dynamics, wit and wisdom, qualities a million bargain-bin bands wouldn’t recognise if they were tattooed on their foreheads – tonight, Catatonia prove they have them in abundance.
In fact, it’s easy to forget that this is Sheffield’s Saturday nite indie-disco extravaganza when Cerys is coming on like Mistress Of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club, watching the low-life from on high and laughing in the face of the storm. They don’t need to deal in the extremes that demand tribal loyalties and “we are the future” badges, because blessed with angel wings and cursed with devil horns, they’re as messy and torn as the whole process of human-being. They know that the daily confusion can be the most exciting place on the world, and right in the centre of it all is Cerys, showgirl heartbreaker, kitchen-sink drama-queen. “What’s wrong, baby?” she asks a heckler, disarmingly. “This one’s for you.” But then, they all are. This band abandon themselves to the audience. Sure, Aled and Mark, Owen and Paul are a sturdy backdrop to Cerys’ woozy excitement, but they still propel these songs off the stage, equally aware there’s no point in huddling up with such buoyant tunes.
It’s impossible, anyway, with a voice like that leading the charge through ‘Bleed’ and ‘You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For’ like a runaway chainsaw. They’re generous, too, in their refusal to let any song pass without at least one hook embedded deep in its flesh, knowing there’s nothing more tedious than standing through three tracks that sound like they were written by guitars on a day-trip to a guitar shop, just to get to the catchy one. The slow songs are dazed, dreamy, with ‘Strange Glue’ speaking in tongues that Shane MacGowan would understand – “When faced with my demons I clothe and I feed them” – while ‘Johnny Come Lately’ is as silvered and strange as anything from Tanya Donelly’s dream encyclopedia. ‘I Am The Mob’ and ‘Road Rage’ are, by contrast, explosive exclamation marks, tunes you could break your teeth on, the vim and vitriol tempered by the delirious smile on Cerys’ face.
That smile is why ‘Mulder And Scully’ becomes more than a giggly pop culture reference, why the line, “Every day when I wake up I thank the Lord I’m Welsh” translates as stirringly in Sheffield as Swansea. Tenderly aware of the absurdities, they let them in, let them bloom. It’s fine, defiant drama. It would be a pity if Catatonia failed to hit all those hearts waiting for something to love, if Cerys was left as the short-lived Shirley Bassey of the student union. If there’s any justice in the world it’ll be red velvet and roses all the way and, all being well, we’ll always have Cerys.