They say that 30 seconds is all it takes to make a first impression.
In the music world, we make our first impressions during the first track of the album. After 30 seconds of track 1, you do one of three things: You stop listening to the record entirely, you listen to the entire track, or you press “skip” to go to track 2. Luckily for Stranger Cat, the opening track to their new album Into the Wilderness is “Empty Little Word,” a melodic tune centered in a lush oasis of electric guitar; a highlight of the album. You end up listening to the entire track.
So, what’s Stranger Cat’s first impression at their record release party at Rough Trade NYC? Sequins. Lots of sequins. More specifically, sequined lined blankets which create a cheap, sparkling, glittering stage for a party. It was here on a sequined lined stage that Stranger Cat (Sufjan Stevens’ collaborator Cat Martino, and her electronic-partner-in-crime Sven Britt) celebrated releasing an album, a fact they only mentioned once during the set.
What Stranger Cat really did was prove what we already knew: they are creatively and intricately simple. They make stages from sequined blankets. They make intricate sounds from three instruments. One breath and one note make a beat on “Empty Little Word.” Laughter and a voice create the percussion web on “Fig Tree.” With Stranger Cat, a grunt and a snap can create the backbone of a song. When you layer simple melodies and sounds together, you actually get a complex song. And Cat is the queen of this land of simplicity.
With just two keyboards, two iPads, one voice, and a drum pad (oh, and a few dancers to boot), Cat Martino and Sven Britt launched into their work for the Rough Trade crowd. With the stage illuminated like the Tron grid, sequined blankets creating intricate light patterns against the wall, and Cat’s sharp black and white blazer stealing the show, we immediately jumped in. Those in the audience not used to hearing Stranger Cat’s sounds were mesmerized by the layers. One patron standing next to me summed it up nicely: “Wow.” Over time, we were treated to a trombone and a violin, rare natural sounds mixed in with the synths (and no doubt an influence from Sufjan’s albums).
True to her name, Cat meowed her way through her songs, alternating between gentle air and vocals that jumped off the stage. Each song was met with hefty applause from the audience of roughly 50 patrons. And if they weren’t fans coming in, there was a distinct moment that made everyone a fan: the moment Stranger Cat launched into a cover. “Silencio,” Cat hissed through the microphone, followed by a “Where the eff is your sparkle cape? Soon, we’ll bring one for the whole audience.” As the audience agreed, Cat simply stated the obvious: “We’re going to play a song.” And that song was Sia’s “Chandelier.” And what a song indeed: The vocals were raw and the violin reverberated, feelings creaking through its wood. The cover shone like, well, like a chandelier, or a sparkle cape. Cat’s “Chandelier” was grounded in emotion; you could see it flow off the stage. Her slightly auto tuned vocals shared her inner feeling, and we believed what she felt.
Stranger Cat really only went “strange” twice. The first time, a few dancers made the floor their own and mingled with the audience during the song. Then, in a Stevie Nicks inspired moment, Cat and crew embarked into dancing with shawls. “This is basically what me and my cousins used to do growing up” Cat informed us, or perhaps warned us before she swirled with the shawls. And while it bordered into the ridiculous (even Cat was laughing), and she touched the strange void (some people chose this moment to get another beer), it was immediately followed by more electronic greatness, as if the awkward moment never even happened.
Even though we technically gathered for a release party, it wasn’t until the last few songs, the “pop songs” as Cat called them, that she mentioned the new record. “We’re playing all the weird songs,” Cat noted, “we’re going to do a pop song now.” So, she ditched the gold cape, shedding the sequins for “Sirens,” the single off of “Into the Wilderness.” Only after the song, when dancers and violins rejoined, and the tune was done, did Cat remind us all, and perhaps also herself, about the album: “Oh right, so we made a record.”
Stranger Cat’s set ended with the first song they ever wrote together, a fact Cat shared on the stage. Cat and Sven paused to look at each other, and then, after a beat, jumped in. In that mixture of vocal and synth, Cat leaned forward, drew a fist, and swayed into the last song.
And so did we.