Mixed Blessing

Marketing is a strange beast. Just a short while ago, Details magazine featured Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews on its cover, hailing her as the new Courtney Love, only better.

Now, while one can make the argument that all publicity is good publicity, and while widespread Stateside exposure for this top Welsh act is long overdue, a more misleading impression would be difficult to find in all the online personal ads you can drudge through in a day.

Catatonia are assuredly a rock band, but their music's basic sensibilities have always lied more in pop than anything as heavy, or as tired, as grunge. And Cerys, as opposed to Courtney, is easily among the least angry and least assuming women you’ll come across in modern music.

Which is why it's a shame that Equally Cursed and Blessed is the first Catatonia release to receive the proper publicity in the States. For, although it contains a number of brilliantly engaging tracks, as a whole it falls short of the band's previous releases, International Velvet and Way Beyond Blue.

Equally Cursed... falters at first, with the airily light balladry of "Dead From The Waist Down" (RealAudio excerpt), before rallying with a string of arena-worthy revels in melody and sound — the deliciously chorus-heavy "Londinium," the admonishingly delightful "Post Script" (RealAudio excerpt), light-hearted pop-monster "She's A Millionaire" and the full-on assault of "Storm The Palace" (RealAudio excerpt), which turns the line "Tourism is congestion" into a battle cry for modern living.

But from there it slips again, and with the exception of the seemingly imperfect beauty of "Valerian," the second half of the album plays more like a b-side collection than a proper release. A good b-side collection, but a b-side collection nonetheless.

It is all nearly redeemed at the end, with the fantastically crafted "Dazed, Beautiful And Bruised," a heartrendingly transcendent tune that is Catatonia at their best; Cerys' undeniably singular voice raspily recalls her finest moments as she soars towards the final notes with enough emotive resonance to make Janis Joplin, and for that matter, Courtney Love, jealous on her best day.

Of course, for the U.S. release, the decision was made to tack two of International Velvet's previously released tracks on at the end, stealing away the perfect finality of "Dazed..." and further diminishing an album that may actually suffer more from poor track sequencing than anything else.