Cat Family Portrait – The Winding Path To Water

I’ll be honest: I love this record, even though (or perhaps because) it thoroughly confuses me.  There are all of the hallmarks of normality present here: guitar, bass, drums.  It’s indie-rock, not occult magic.  None of the sounds on this record are particularly strange or out of the ordinary.  Rather, the confusion seems to spring from whether or not London singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Adam Khangura (A.K.A. Justaman) knows how to tune his guitar, much less play it.

I don’t mean this in a bad way, if that makes sense.  This is a deceptive premise for a review, I admit, but stay with me.  As I said, I love the record.  Despite the loose guitars and uncertain rhythms on the surface of each song – beneath them lie near-masterful arrangements that truly command the listener’s attention.  The quasi-deranged and broken feeling offered by The Winding Path To Water is relentless and captivating.  I have never heard a record with this much imagination and effort sounding, at first glance, like a mess.

There are, in my mind, some sonic parallels to Kevin McMahon and Prick  – another one-man-band and an album of comparable quirkiness and conviction.  The music itself is more reminiscent of Failure’s Fantastic Planet if the whole band guzzled a case of scotch.  There’s a psychological component to this sort of music, in that the songs are imbued with a sense of who the artist is inside.  It’s not just a collection of catchy indie-rock tunes (deep down, it is that too) – it’s someone’s mental interior made audible.

My own image of the record, ignoring the artist’s intentions, is that of a unique “day in the life,” a la Harmony Korine’s Gummo.  Our backdrop, however, is post-industrial urban decay.  We follow a man who is not altogether “there.”  He lives in a city that outpaces him.  He listens to standard indie-rock on his radio but he interprets and hears what we hear on this record – that is to say, something altered.  His world is slower and less coordinated than reality, but reality still shapes his life experience – only in ways he cannot fathom completely.  The dreariness and unfriendliness of life is not lessened by his fragmented mind; they are, perhaps, compounded by it instead.

Still, there’s a beautiful soul there, ringing through the noise.  The words are honest.  The vocals, listless and burdened, sound like a man singing to himself as he traverses one dark neighborhood after another on foot.  Streetlights pass overhead like distant, self-absorbed angels.  Taxis careen around the corner, roaring monsters in a hurry.  Drizzling rain his companion, catching the light in a billion tiny particles.  The world is unkind but curious; threatening but fantastic.

I have no idea what the songs are about.  I haven’t tried to discern the lyrics at all.  Right now, I’m okay with that.  However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious.  Even so, I like my experience of this record.  If I have it all wrong, which well may be the case, it almost doesn’t matter.  By the time you work your way from bustling downtown streets of “Muddy Diamonds” to the back alley groove of “Star Shine Bright” (my favorite song on the record) to the taped confessional “Matryoshka,” you will realize that the “mess” is an illusion.  Khangura has been in control the whole time.

Inconsistencies and wrinkles and slips and moments of dissonance begin to form the fundamental elements of a cohesive aural strategy.  Guitars are recorded with, it would seem, different microphones (or amplifiers) of differing quality, and then woven into the stereo mix the same way they are woven into the arrangement.  “Faulty” tuning drives the pure expression of any given chord down into the muck, but it’s on purpose here.  The sound of it, juxtaposed against certain elements played “properly” (the drums and drum programming on this record are excellent) sometimes unnerving and in some cases chilling, but altogether in a word: visceral.

I know how this music makes me feel.  Slightly paranoid, slightly lovesick, somewhat distant and maybe just a little hopeful.  Each song occupies a different space, but the overall impression is of being stuck in one particular universe.  That feeling, or impression – or whatever – reminds me of the Japanese phrase “mono no aware” (From Wikipedia: “物の哀れ, literally: ‘the pathos of things,’ and also translated as ‘an empathy toward things,’ or ‘a sensitivity to ephemera,’ and is also a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”)

“Bones,” on the other hand, sounds a bit more optimistic than the rest of the record, and it’s timed well in the track order.  All the way up until the end, Cat Family Portrait is committed to the sound it has cultivated and the off-kilter energy it emits.

However, I felt somewhat let down by the hokey yarling vocals on the last track, “They Live.”  There, at the end, I expected things to slip completely and for something beyond the world of this record to to emerge – perhaps something more delicate and open.  As it is, “They Live” feels like a joke of sorts, and is offered in what seems like an apology for the record preceding it.  Then again, maybe I’m just no fun and other people would have less trouble switching gears like that.  But when I listen to The Winding Path To Water, I just play it up until “Tuesday Afternoon Lament” and call it good.  [Edit: “They Live” has since been removed from the album.]

This is a lovely, elegant, and inimitable record – and, as it turns out, pretty great for writing to as well.