Already a valiant success in Great Britain, the Welsh outfit Catatonia make their bid for U.S. stardom with "Equally Cursed and Blessed." It's an all-too-appropriate title: The LP is a collection of nicely made little pop songs, with lots of spectacularly fuzzy guitars and gentle orchestral washes. But its ultimate character is determined by Cerys Matthews' breathy, little-girl voice, which is lovely in and of itself at least half the time. The problem is the other half, where her tortured phrasing makes her almost insufferable.
The funny thing is, "Equally Cursed and Blessed" is the kind of record that makes you want to keep trying to like it. If Matthews' vocal affectations bug you the first time (her first name, incidentally, rhymes with "terrace"), it's still entirely possible that you might be tempted by the beguiling melodies to chalk it up to your own bad mood and give the damn thing another spin.
Well, I spun it and spun it, and I can't get past the phrasing. On "Post Script" she stretches her vowels out so much that she sounds like a bad imitation of Anthony Newley. Still, I wouldn't mind listening to "Equally Cursed and Blessed" once more. Because there are songs here that I haven't been able to hide from.
"Dead From the Waist Down" seduces from the first note, with its spun-sugar piano opening and, later, a soft swirl of strings that draws you in like a whirlpool. "We stole the songs from birds and trees ... Now our paths they never meet," Matthews sings with a pouty kind of bravery. If she sounds little-girlish, she's also somewhat knowing -- like a Lolita with a conscience.
And it's clear that Matthews knows how not to be pretentious. On the refreshingly straightforward ballad "Nothing Hurts," built around a few fragile guitar motifs and more of those seductive strings, she checks her ego, and the sound is pure pleasure. There's an appealing softness to her cooing, vaporous vocal; the sound is almost as delicate as the huff you might make on a cold day to see if your breath will leave a little hanging cloud.
There are some highly annoying moments on "Equally Cursed and Blessed" that have nothing to do with Matthews' vocals: "Shoot the Messenger" sounds like a German drinking song and features a theremin, used badly -- two strikes. But the album's low points are at least partially offset by the inclusion, on the American version, of two terrific earlier songs that appeared on Catatonia's 1998 breakthrough LP, "International Velvet," which was available in the States but didn't make much of a dent in terms of record sales; "Road Rage" and "Mulder and Scully" are too good to let slip through the cracks.
Even the songs that work only halfway manage to deliver a reasonable amount of magic. "Karaoke Queen," with its almost ABBA-like simplicity, is catchy enough -- but there are those mannered vocals again. Matthews warbles, "It's just a three-minute song, it doesn't last very long, but it'll take you to a place you wanna be." Maybe it will, and maybe it won't. But if you find yourself compelled to hit "play" again, then it won't have failed completely, will it?