“Look, all those other bands are better looking than us. They can use computers and think outside the box. So let’s play brain-dead rock’n’roll. Where Alt-J or someone will go leftfield, we think, ‘Put the girlfriends on the shoulders, bring the chorus and here we go again.’”
That’s what Van McCann, frontman of Welsh rock group Catfish and the Bottlemen, told The Guardian in 2015. He didn’t want to reinvent the rock form, just get really good at it—and sure enough, that’s what the band has done over the years. Despite their out-of-the-box name (inspired by an Australian busker), they stick to song structures that are more or less traditional, and on their third album, The Balance, they seem to have mastered the style. Every track is under four minutes; every refrain is passionate and crowd-ready.
First on The Balance is “Longshot.” It’s also the band’s first single from the album, and it’s plain to see why it was chosen. The song starts with McCann’s vocals alone; then he’s joined by simple, sparse strumming. The urgency in his voice is enough to keep you hooked. By the time the drums and electric guitars kick in, you’ll be absolutely sold. Like many a Catfish track, it sounds like it could easily serve as the theme song to a gritty television show about young people falling in and out of love on street corners and under club lights. It has quite the Britpop vibe—it’s reminiscent of Oasis, a band that McCann has admired for years.
“Fluctuate,” the album’s second track and second single, has a similar sucker punch of a chorus. When McCann sings, “You’d act out the lines with an arm up to the sky,” it’s easy to imagine fans raising their fists in the air, doing exactly what the lyrics describe. The verses are full of details that make the song clever as well as catchy; “I love it” becomes “I love you” later in the song, for instance. “Pull the love over my eyes” is one of the track’s best moments: the drums bang as if a terrible sacrifice is about to occur, and it just might. A glorious guitar solo follows, transposing the emotion in McCann’s vocals into one electric howl.
Catfish and the Bottlemen is known for singing songs about romantic relationships, but in “Conversation,” they switch it up. The song is an anthem for McCann’s dad, and the lyrics are as heartwarming as ever, without ever dipping into sappy territory: “You tell me to get through tomorrow/’Cause you know how it feels.” The theme of father-son bonds reemerges in “Missions” later on, providing some interesting introspection.
Another recurring theme on The Balance is the idea of taking risks. “Nothing’s ever good unless there’s something on the line,” McCann sings in “Sidetrack.” In “Encore,” he shares a similar sentiment: “Trust me, it feels like an uproar in encore/When you ask of me to walk that line.” There’s a refreshing hopefulness underneath all the leather-jacket glamour and grit that the record provides.
Catfish and the Bottlemen play a fun trick on “Overlap,” the album’s final track. “I go straight from mine to work to…” McCann sings; then the song cuts off rapidly, mid-guitar-roar. It’s sudden; it’s unexpected; it leaves you wanting more—and can’t the same be said of the band itself?
We might have to hang on a couple of years for the next Catfish album, but that won’t be a problem when the guys have so many songs that are perfect to play on repeat. They know how to make the classic sound original—and that’s tough to do.