“When I’m not playing dumb, I’m biting my tongue for good reason, dear.”
“I will crystalize your tears and make a thousand chandeliers.”
“You carved out your life with some dull, rusted knife, now you’re tasting it. And you got what you want, so stop crossing the lines, you are taking my time and you are wasting it.”
… And those come from only the first song.
Indeed, “Mortal Cathedrals,” the 10-track latest effort from Greencastle Pennsylvania’s The Positronic Cats, is littered (pun intended) with word-y, angst-y, (and dare we say) emo-y passages that, in fairness, are as delicious as a case of Purina would be to any feline frenemy. It’s the speciality of Waylon K. Smith and Jim Taylor. Roll Death Cab For Cutie and Mumford & Sons into one, and you kind of/sort of have the gist of who The Positronic Cats are.
Thing is, though, when it works … man. It works. There are moments on “Cathedrals” that rival the best of any local troubadours strumming their acoustic guitars unreasonably hard, bleeding out their heart with lyrics so cutting, the microphone weeps both in fear and sympathy. Smith doesn’t just know how to sing, he knows how to deliver, and when his words escape those unforgiving lips, it feels like every inch of his soul is exposed.
Take the aforementioned opening track, “1,000 chandeliers.” Beginning innocently enough, Smith croons over a slow picking six-string, hinting that an earthquake might be ready to explode energy into the lithosphere. Before long, the waves form, fissures filling forests near and far as a kick drum shows up and the new-grass commences. The hook is infectious, the energy is superb and the drama is dazzling. It’s the best song here.
Almost equally as impressive is the follow up, “Love Me.” The most radio-rock-friendly song offered, the track is supported by an uptempo that’s as straightforward as these guys get. Sure, it’s still just an acoustic guitar buoyed by a spattering of electric six-string work, but Smith gets his Max Bemis on with a chorus like, “Just tell me that you love me/you don’t have to mean it/just tell me that you love me/and make sure that I believe it.” It wouldn’t work if he didn’t sound so desperate and he wouldn’t sound so desperate if it didn’t work.
Yet that’s where the bulk of the victories end. Weirdly, from that point forward, the duo settles into a pattern of brooding jams that blend too much together too often. The lyrical gems can still be found, of course, but the stomping influence of Mumford pops up again only in “The Beautiful Chaos Of Time” — and even then, the Cats opt for no drum to help propel it forward, rendering Taylor’s tasteful and interesting mandolin playing almost moot in the grand scheme of the song.
Granted, “Glitter” has some spunk, with its aggressive waltz and filled out production. And yes, “Fluidity Of Fate” doesn’t come with a lack of emotion, especially with the rise and fall of each hook and the way Smith enunciates the payoff line. Throughout both tracks, his hunger continues to be one of the duo’s most valued assets. Even if your attention starts to fade, his passion more often than not pulls you back in, no matter how hard you fight it.
Still, it’s hard not to hope for a more varied collection here. The back-to-back curtain call of “Heart Of The Sea” and “Cosmonauts” ends things on a downer, if only for how their slow burns ultimately turn into smoke before you’re ready for a complete extinction of flame. The full group sound makes its comeback — complete with drum kit and a screaming Smith — halfway through “Cosmonauts,” and while you want it to be the exclamation point a set like this deserves, it amounts to an ellipsis that almost — almost — calls for a question mark.
Which is a shame, because the promise of the first two tracks here suggests that these Cathedrals have potential to be immortal. For the mortal kind, however, a hope for next time is the best it’s going to get.
“In our search, we may become the gods we seek,” a final soundbite suggests before the record fades to black.
They aren’t gods yet, but they also shouldn’t stop searching.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **