Katzenjammer is one of the best live acts you could hope to see. Multi-instrumentalists all, they constantly switch between equipment like a cabaret version of Arcade Fire but only managed three studio albums in 12 years. They’ve been on hiatus since early 2016, though there’s no certainty they won’t return.
Arising out of this hopefully temporary break is an absolute gem in the form of the debut album, ‘Skinhorse Playground’, from one of the four ladies, Sol Heilo.
The Skin Horse (a toy horse covered in real animal skin) is a character in the venerable children’s novel the Velveteen Rabbit, a sort of 1920’s Toy Story in which an old-fashioned toy is overlooked in favour of newer ones only to be comforted by an older, wiser, toy, a sort of Woody, from the Pixar films. There is the temptation to perceive that Sol Heilo sees herself here as such a figure within the “playground” of Katzenjammer, similar to the way for example that Peter Gabriel evaluated his Genesis existence in Solsbury Hill.
However, the truth is far more interesting. Having experienced vivid serial dreams in which various incarnations of a monster featured since she was a small child, they returned during a dark period of her recent life, both professionally and personally, the creature creating havoc around her. Sustained only by the writing of the songs on this album and struggling for a title, she awoke one morning with Skinhorse Playground implanted in her mind, yet had to Google a word she had never previously heard. Adopting the Skinhorse name all the same she came to understand the Playground part as well. The Skinhorse was the destructive creature and her life was its playground.
While Katzenjammer’s songs were written as collaborations between the four members and a friend, Mats Rybø, the band members arranged them and Sol Heilo’s expertise in this discipline, in addition to being a top class songwriter, is evident on this album as a vast array of instruments is brought together. It is entirely plausible that Heilo played most or even all of them herself (she’s a master of 16 of them, as disparate as percussion, trumpet, banjo and balalaika) and she even made the video for the first single from it, ‘America,’ on her iPhone, a task that looks to be as complex and lengthy as Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
That arrangement skill is evident particularly in the utterly beautiful ballad ‘Walk a Little Further’, in which what sounds like an army of glockenspiels or vibraphones congregates with massed voices like a latter-day Tubular Bells; the best track on an album which doesn’t have a single weakness. It is commonplace now for songwriters to de-glamorise technology and social media but Heilo puts a different spin on it: “Enter Café Solitaire; I’ll show you all the doubt that’s flowing…People lost in disrepair…A universal sadness growing…They‘re drowning in a daily race…To glamourise their social page”.
Arrangement is also paramount on the upbeat, jaunty but intensely personal ‘Killing Karma’, in which Madonna appears to have loaned out her ’Like a Prayer’ gospel choir. Actually, comparing Killing Karma with Like a Prayer, there’s no difference at all in the quality of the songs. In this one, she, like Gabriel on ‘Solsbury Hill’, seeks to “find another me”…”’cause there was not another thing a hollow Sol could be”. With Fiona Apple-like ferocity she destroys the object of her derision: “Well I was sick and tired of all your hidden lies, so bitter you demonised whenever you whispered my name; Now, I see who you really are, a desolated star, you fester in the dark, you’re killing karma”.
‘America’, the opening track, has an infectiously strong melody from the get-go and is guaranteed to get you hooked as you balance that melody line with the ambiguous lyrics. “We all suck blood in the promised land…Wake me up when I hit the ground…Wake me up from America…Listen Up; in euphoria we’re falling, we’re falling…” She makes a statement and sets out a marker in this track, too. The totality of Katzenjammer’s work contains just one swear word but she gets her first in under the Sol brand in the very first song.
‘When my Country Died’ is a morose but powerful track that starts off with a sound like brakes being applied to a steam train. In it, she awakes to find a great deal of weeping and people walking around in circles. It isn’t clear just what the song is about and Norway’s recent monstrous internal history is not directly referenced. But the lines “…I am free but I still hide… when the prophets stopped speaking, that’s when my country died” do drop a hint. The song is underpinned by an incessant subliminal beat that gets under your skin.
‘London is Trouble’ is a more traditional folk song, delivered with falsetto vocals and a lovely cello accompaniment. On the surface, it appears to be a charming broken relationship song. But actually, it concerns the stresses of the constantly touring lifestyle that Katzenjammer experienced, which are highlighted by way of a discordant electronic outro.
‘I Can’t Sleep’ takes over where London is Trouble left off and with its deceptively simple and seductive piano melody that you’ll struggle to get out of your head, tosses and turns like a restless night.
If songs were films or TV series ‘The Dream Escapers’ starts off like an early James Bond film soundtrack with flavours of the Thomas Crown Affair’s Windmills of your Mind. Then at the back end, it could be a soundtrack to Twin Peaks. It is slightly surreal throughout and appears to reference directly those childhood dreams and the need to break away from the playground and seek a fresh challenge whatever the outcome. “…and they celebrate that they always knew, and they claim they all believed in you!”
The tearfully sentimental ‘Closer to the Sky’ is suggestive of a suicide pact and its implications (“ask my children to understand my heart will never leave them”). The most poignant song on the album indicates that she was in a very dark place indeed when the album was written but is enlivened by some deft and quite prog-like keys in the middle eight.
The album ends with ‘Happy Song’. U.S. band Grouplove warned us never to trust one, but despite its dark lyrics, this country and western flavoured track, possibly the most Katzenjammer-like and featuring that band’s stock-in-trade instrument, the banjo, has a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ feel to it. It seems to acknowledge, in a belated Solsbury Hill-moment the hiatus/break-up:
“Come on play me a song or I will leave you girls here…’cause the night is dark and the road is long, And I cut myself on the tip of your tongues; And I ain’t feeling well; And I wish you all would go to hell!”
Then, right at the end: “Oh let’s play us a happy song, I’d do it for you; Play a happy song we do it good; Let’s play a happy song all the night through; Come play a happy song…I would do it for you”.
A plea for reconciliation?
Without wanting to press the Katzenjammer analogies too far, just as with that band no two songs are alike, and Skinhorse Playground does also bear some similarities to the slower paced ‘Rockland’, their last album. More pertinently, it is not in the least bit surprising that it was Heilo who wrote what is possibly Katzenjammer’s best song, the haunting dystopian ballad ‘Lady Marlene’. Some of the tracks here come very close indeed to its brilliance.
Throughout the album Heilo’s voice is effortless and the arrangements seamless while there is a goosebump moment on almost every track.
Demonstrating terrific mastery of a language that isn’t her natural one and possessing the knack of writing lyrically-meaningful perfect pop tunes, Sol Heilo brings to this album the exuberance of Katzenjammer but channelled into often deeply personal and genuinely moving songs. Put simply, Skinhorse Playground ranks as a serious contender for the best debut album of this decade.
Skinhorse Playground is released on 6th October 2017 by Propeller Recordings.