New music: Cats and Dinosaurs

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Hej hej, Sverige!

‘Swing på barrikaderna’ – Cats and Dinosaurs– 2016

Disclaimer: I was approached by Tove Casén Nylander to review this album, and provided with a digital copy of the album.
I then met 
Filip Bagewitz, another band member, at Herrang, and we made friends.

This is another of those happy stories of a band working with dancers, or being a band of dancers.
Cats and Dinosaurs are a Swedish band, based in Gothenburg. More importantly,

The socialist-feminist swing collective Cats & Dinosaurs plays original lindyhop dance music with political lyrics in Swedish.

I was approached by Tove Casén Nylander by email to review this album in month, and then I failed completely to write a review. I think I seem to do my reviewing when I’m stuck on a bus or a plane, and have time to sit and think about the music without interruption. So apologies to everyone.

This is an interesting one. First off, all the lyrics are in Swedish. Which is both excellent and frustrating. Excellent because SVERIGE! But frustrating because the musicians are politically engaged and vocal. The band members I met are all fairly lefty, and very much interested in issues of gender and sexuality (providing a neat dovetail with our feminist fika that year). And the lyrics of these songs, and their delivery, are informed by this thinking. But I don’t speak Swedish, so I don’t know what they’re talking about!
Ah, well.

They remind me a little, musically, of the Underscore Orkestra, for their inclusion of a range of European folk musical influences, mostly in the violin and a few percussive instruments. There are strong New Orleans street jazz influences in instrumentation, delivery, and intensity. Some of the vocal deliveries are similar as well – sort of shouty, again informed by lefty folk pop. I hear echoes of bands like Tin Pan in the earlier days in the discordant bits, and Choinure Boys in the shouty exuberance. These seem particularly relevant to a music which always had one foot in the popular, and the other in the political.
Unlike the Gamble and Doyle albums, this is not a carefully mainstream swing recording. It is not going to attract a huge mainstream lindy hopping audience.

I quite like it. I like the vocalist’s almost androgynous quality. Is this a man or a woman? Does it matter? Not so much. ‘Jobba Mindre!’ is a fun opening to the album, with a shouted, repeated chorus which makes for good singing-along, and there are shouting and clapping bits, which everyone likes. It gets in and out in 2 minutes, BOOM. Total pop song material.
I do like the combination of piano and violin. It very much positions it in European folk music, but by way of American street jazz. There are bits in songs like ‘Sång till valfriheten’ where the instrumentation is particularly awesome at the beginning (though sadly it lacks a bit of variety later). And ‘Sex timmars arbetsdag’’s use of the vibes is quite lovely. I think this band would be a lot of fun live, especially at a rowdy party. The feels are strong, and convincing. I feel, even without any Swedish, that the musicians are committed to the story their music is telling, the feels they are communicated.

It is, though, the album of a relatively raw jazz band. They straddle styles in a way which many dancers would find uncomfortable. Your hardcore lindy hopping purists wouldn’t enjoy this band, but the more relaxed jazz dancers and newer dancers would.

I’m off to DJ in Seoul this week, so I might see how this song goes down. There’ll be Swedes in the audience, so I’ll enjoy seeing how they respond to the radical left wing lyrics in a fairly politically conservative city. I have a feeling it would go down well with Japanese dancers who are used to bands like Choinure Boys.

I wouldn’t recommend this band for hard core lindy hop DJing, but I would recommend it to people who are interested in this particular type of ‘jazz fusion’ (ie street jazz + european folk music + radical politics + fun). Buy it to support and encourage the musicians, who are also dancers.

‘Swing på barrikaderna’ – Cats and Dinosaurs– 2016

3 thoughts on “New music: Cats and Dinosaurs”

  1. I saw this band live twice this week in Berlin: once at Die Blaue Stunde, a weekly balboa-tending night in a bar which attracts dancers from various experience levels, and once at the larger Villa Neukölln, a bar with a medium-sized ballroom at the back hosting live swing music every Thursday and attracting dancers of all styles (probably equal parts balboa and lindy hop) widely divergent experience levels.

    Both times, the Band. Just. ROCKED. Or swung, as it were.

    Firstly, on dancability:
    The dance floor was consistently packed at both gigs. In fact, at Villa Neukölln (where the dance floor is about twice the size of Die Blaue Stunde), it was so packed during many of the songs that my partner and I were forced to confine ourselves to pure bal with a few toss outs just to avoid crashing into people. Villa Neukölln also tends to attract a large number of non-dancing punters who stumble in wide-eyed, usually by accident. If they feel inspired, they will often have a go at partner dancing with one another around the edges of the dance floor. Your suggestion that the band would be great for beginner-level dancers is astute.

    But I want to make a plea in the band’s defence and emphasise that they’re great for many styles, even across the intermediate levels. Because they play a variety of tempos, people were happy dancing both lindy hop and balboa, and it meant that these different styles were able to coexist on the same dance floor, which definitely warms my heart (sadly I didn’t see anyone dancing shag but I think Jobba Mindre, for example, is eminently shaggable). In addition, they play quite a number of slower tunes, which lend themselves to blues, slow bal or slow lindy all at once. Impressively, for both gigs, the band curated their two-set list really well in terms of increasing and decreasing the tempo from song to song which meant that many people just kept dancing without taking a break, because the slower numbers offered them an opportunity to cool off a bit.

    Secondly, on stage presence & personality:
    OMG CUTEST BAND EVER. They have clearly worked really hard to develop a distinctive stage-aesthetic. The stage was decorated not only with a backdrop banner but, most cutely, lots and lots of little plastic dinosaurs and cats (including lions, tigers and the like), as was the merch stand. Yes, *merch*. They not only had their CD for sale but t-shirts and cotton bags too.

    You talk a lot in your review about your frustration at not being able to understand the lyrics. The band tackles this head-on during their stage shows with a lot of humour: in one song, their own modern take on the classic Need A Little Sugar in My Bowl, hand-painted English translations of the key lyrics – all euphemistic propositions for sex – were held aloft by the clarinetist and saxophonist and then positioned around the stage. See the politics section below for more on this.

    Thirdly, on politics:
    This is a fiercely political band. I personally happen to like this because I share a lot of their perspectives. None of it is particularly controversial: they cover things like the need for shorter working days (especially in overworked and understaffed sectors like nursing), increased democratic participation, and less racism. Pretty accessible stuff. But it’s not just the lyrics. Their politics are built into their stage presence in the most likeable positive way. There is audience participation with some good old fashioned call and response, eg, “Arbetslinjen, what are you doing to me?!” And they give funny, humorous explanations of their lyrics in between songs, and sometimes even during their songs, as in the Sugar in My Bowl example – that song, for example, is about sexual consent, and the lyrics are built around coming up with early-jazz-inspired ways of making the act of asking a lover for consent in hot, sexy, saucy ways, like “Want me to warm your pork chops?”, “Wanna put some team on my clothes?”, or “Wanna stir my pot tonight?”, plus the proverbial jelly rolls and bananas.

    Overall, I think what you say about them being raw is true. I’m not sure if this was a criticism or not, but I don’t see it as a negative thing at all. It’s possible that the sound will smooth out over time and with more live gig experience in their current constellation. If I were to make one criticism it would be that sometimes, those lovely little moments in the music where dancers get to really hit the heights of musicality occur with no warning, making it hard to catch them. I’m no musician, so I have no idea why this is the case, but several dancers I spoke to felt the same – perhaps a little bit more musical warning that there is about to be a certain moment with a certain instrument or mood would be helpful for dancers wanting to really get the most out of their musicality.

    1. Excellent review, Kate!
      I had a feeling they’d make for a great live band. And sometimes that greatness doesn’t quite transfer to recordings. Or, it’s more that the qualities that make them great in person can’t be transferred to a recording.

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