Karen Mantler: My Cat Arnold (XtraWATT/3)

My Cat Arnold

Karen Mantler
My Cat Arnold

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, organ, piano
Eric Mingus vocals
Jonathan Sanborn bass
Ethan Winogrand drums
Marc Muller guitar
Steve Weisberg synthesizers
Steven Bernstein trumpet
Pablo Calogero baritone saxophone
Recorded Spring 1988 by Angela Gomez and Steve Swallow
Mixed by Tom Mark, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi, Sterling Sound, New York, NY
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: November 1, 1989

Karen Mantler, who takes after her father (Michael Mantler) in name and taste for the morose, as after her mother (Carla Bley) in musical spirit, has cobbled herself a pair of shoes that no one else could possibly fill. If Suzanne Vega did late-night cabaret, this might just scratch the surface of what you’ll find on this emblematic debut. Add in the talents of Charles Mingus’s son Eric on vocals and David Sanborn’s son Jonathan on bass, along with a bevy of nuanced musicians, and you get some dusty, forlorn songcraft that burrows into the skin and tattoos it from the underside.

As will become her usual, Mantler hangs out in the dimly lit corners of human experience and describes them as a means of emphasizing the unconditional purity of the relationship she shares with her titular cat Arnold. The most imposing door stands before us in the form of “I Wanna Be Good.” This one-act play of derision between partners spins a funky argument, replete with Greek chorus-like commentary from the band between verbal spars as the boyfriend (played by Mingus) tries to mold her into something she wishes not to be. Their relationship plays out further in “Breaking Up,” for which they swap self-defenses amid a congregation of bass, drums, organ, and the popping baritone saxophone of Pablo Calogero. “Fear Of Pain” takes an even more disturbing turn into domestic violence (Steve Weisberg’s synthesizer delineating a palpable tension throughout). Thankfully, Mingus isn’t always a target of fear, as when he takes on a comedic role in “My Stove,” acting the part of salesman trying to sell her on a variety of stoves (read: thinly veiled stand-ins for men) to the hapless Mantler, who longs for her old stove after it “moved to another town.”

Emotionally honest as these are, the album’s highlights deal with more mundane objects of concern. On “Vacation,” Mantler croons about her desire to get away from it all. Songs like this come across as destitute, because we know the events they describe will never happen. On the flip side, those about overtly sad things are presented as whimsical and airy. A fine example of the latter is “People Die,” which is so unadorned that nothing but emotion comes through. “It’s a fact,” she sings. “Once you’re born there’s no turning back.” These childlike rhymes blister with truth. With so little affect to get in their way, the wisdom of their banality glows.

The title track is an ode to her cat. Described as a “big furry pillow with claws,” he occupies her thoughts 24/7. Mantler’s obsession with Arnold makes the thought of losing him unbearable (and foreshadows the pall of her third album). “Best Of Friends” is a lovely song about her mother and is perhaps the only moment when genuine sunshine peaks through the clouds. Finally, “Green Beans” is a soulful song about—you guessed it—those vegetables so often pushed to the side of a child’s plate. Mingus gives a method performance as the man who hates green beans as much as the woman serving them, bringing us full circle to the reality of a broken world in which Arnold’s purr might be the only hope left.

Mantler’s one-of-a-kind psychoanalysis warms the cerebrum. Noteworthy also is her harmonica playing, which casts a varicolored light across each lyric. More than any other artist in the WATT family, she is an uncompromising outlier who understands that every generation has its story to tell, even if that story will never change.

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