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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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Family Cactus: Come Howling

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The first thing I noticed about Family Cactus when I saw them open up at Camp a Low Hum earlier this year were their lifting multi-part vocal harmonies. They played at 11am, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that almost everyone in attendance was suffering from some combination of sleep deprivation, hangover or comedown. The band seemed understandably woozy as well, but on the whole managed to acquit themselves pretty decently under the circumstances. I’ve seen the Family Cactus a few times since, and while I wouldn’t describe them as the most energetic live band going, their collective vocal efforts and strong melodic sensibilities generally tend to ensure that their shows are an enjoyable experience.

Unfortunately, their debut album, Come Howling, seems to reveal more about Family Cactus’ flaws than it plays to their strengths. Take the mighty harmonised hook on lead single ‘Kingmaker’. Live, it verges on being Arcade Fire anthemic, but on record the band’s combined vocals sound shorn of their power and energy. The instrumentation doesn’t fare much better. Sure, the snare and tom rolls punch their way through the mix to acceptable effect, but the guitars lack both warmth and fuzz, while the additional keyboard plinks are rarely audible enough to make much of a meritable impact. There’s no denying frontman Adam Ladley’s pop sensibilities though. Pretty much all of the tracks have a sharp hook or a well deployed build-up. ‘In-Transit’ is probably the highlight, with a despairing chorus backed by an irresistible keyboard lick and some smart moments of guitar interplay. Still, I think a group with seven members and such a solid live pedigree should sound, well, bigger. Perhaps the Family Cactus’ most fundamental problem is in fact Ladley himself. For all his meticulous song craft, his actual voice lacks the personality of a Win Butler, or the adventurous energy of a Kevin Drew. Too often he ventures into boring Chris Martin territory, when a bit of attitude and risk taking might serve him better. Furthermore, lead vocal duties could perhaps have been shared around a little bit more democratically. From what I can make out, Nina Siegler has a pretty decent voice, but she never really gets enough of the limelight to attempt a Leslie Feist-style lead ala ‘Almost Crimes’. One of the reasons I enjoy Broken Social Scene so much is the reckless sense of abandon that you often hear in the vocal performances, and in comparison Ladley just sounds stuck in middle gear.

The snarling guitars on ‘Barbed Tongue’ attempt to redress this issue somewhat, but unfortunately Ladley opts for the largely superficial option of singing through a distorted mic, when an energised vocal performance and a few swigs of Laphroaig might have suited the track better. It’s a shame really, because as a collective the Family Cactus have some undeniable talent. After all, a glimpse at their CVs makes for impressive reading: The Accelerants, The Brunettes, The Nudie Suits, Grand Prix, The Cosbys and The Bonnie Scarlets. Moments like the bouncing guitar intro of ‘Mariachi Stomper’ and the raucous deconstructed midsection of ‘No Magic’ promise much, but under Ladley’s lead, the Family Cactus never quite manage to push them far enough to create anything that sounds truly magical.

Mainstream: 3
Indie: 6.2
Kim: Disposable


Family Cactus
Come Howling
(Sony)

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Comments (18)

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  1. Cream Cheese says:

    Good on you for writing a review that has a solid opinion.
    But the problem I see with it is that when you start talking about the bands singer it turns into a band review rather than an album one.

    It seems like most of the undesirable parts that you talk are about are the things that make up their sound as a whole.

    Ladley’s vocals are subdued sure – but that is the point of the other singer I believe. That is their (vocal) sound.
    The poor fella will most likely be gutted when he reads this review – lets hope he remembers the fact that he is the songwriter for all tracks on this album will earn him praise in most reviewers eyes.

  2. Boston Duchamp says:

    In my opinion, this review says more about the reviewers actual knowledge of music (or lack of knowledge of music that isn’t top40 indie) then it does about ‘Come Howling’ or Family Cactus. Arcade Fire, Feist??? You have to wonder if she gets her music off i-pod advert campaigns. Also, Broken Social Scene, that is such an irrelevant reference. Amateur university students posing as music critics for the fail once again. Write about something you actually understand, or get back to hating on Little Pictures; I can ride for that!

  3. Kim Wheatley says:

    The press release they sent us contained the following quote:

    “The seven Family Cactus members produce a sound with elements of Radiohead, The Arcade Fire, Beirut and the E Street Band; a sound that can be boisterous and aggressive, or calm and intricate. ”

    So that accounts for the Arcade Fire reference. I’m not sure about some of those other ones though (Radiohead?), but I do think it’s pretty fair to say that their live show does at times aspire to create the same kinds of epic vocal singalongs that you’d expect from the Arcade Fire. The album fails to do this, and I think I make that point quite clearly in my review.

    Now, given that I’ve been dealing with their manager (as opposed to the individual band members) during the course of my correspondence with them, I think it’s fair to say that they are hardly a bastion for obscure DIY “indie cred”. In fact, I bet that the Family Cactus would love to do iPod adverts and be a top40 indie band. They have signed with Sony after all.

    Finally, while you have attacked my opinions and my taste in music (purely, it would seem, on the basis of 3 references in a review, WTF?) you haven’t actually offered up anything constructive yourself. I don’t even know if you’ve listened to the album, or if you are making judgments purely based on their live show. Who would you compare the Family Cactus to? Presumably if you disagree with my assessment of ‘Come Howling,’ what qualities do you think it has that make it a decent album?

    Oh yeah, one last thing. Please don’t call me “she,” because, as the “author info” box in the top right hand corner indicates, I’m male.

  4. Juliet says:

    Kim, I would have thought you’d be happy to be mistaken as female?

  5. Jackson Wood says:

    It’s those shoes I tells ya.

  6. James Beavis says:

    Play him off, keyboard cat: the Boston Duchamp edition

  7. Maggie says:

    Next issue of Salient: a review of Kim Wheatley’s shoes.

  8. Kim Wheatley says:

    My shoes:

    Mainstream: 5 Stars
    Indie: 7.6
    Kim: Genius

  9. Hannah says:

    Or, ‘What your shoes say about you’. In Kim’s case, “I’m a quirky twenty-something-year-old who is into ‘indie’ music, but also (somewhat ironically) into hip-hop.”

    Love you Kim.

  10. Elle Hunt says:

    I think this calls for a reprise of the “Desperate Times” article, but this time, instead of judging CDs by their covers, judging musicians by their shoes. Who’s down?

  11. Maggie says:

    Kim’s shoes:

    Mainstream: 3
    Indie: 5.7
    Maggie: burnable/ makes the dumpster/ heinous

  12. Mikey says:

    I would rate the shoes here too but to be honest I didn’t have my welding mask on and therefore couldn’t see them.

  13. Cam says:

    fkn hell whts up wth all ths cuntnshit? Kim is a fkn wmns name. Fksake. Get it rght slnt.

  14. Hank Scorpio says:

    under kim wheatley there’s a little bit of kramer

  15. Ms Nice Guy says:

    Remind anyone else of Coldplay?

  16. a wise guy says:

    Because Coldplay sucks? Is that it? Do I win?

  17. smackdown says:

    self hatred
    i hate you
    and myself… NIGGER

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