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Catfish Haven - Tell Me

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Artist: Catfish Haven

Album: Tell Me

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Oct. 1, 2006

Lately, Chicago's Catfish Haven has ridden a wave of blog-happy approval to become the hipster's jam band of choice, drawing comparisons along the way to Otis Redding, the Stax house band and other luminaries. The band's debut EP Please Come Back led the hype parade last spring, and this fall's full-length Tell Me appears to be garnering somewhat more muted levels of hysteria. Not bad for a middling roots bar band with a Joe Cocker-esque frontman, barely discernable traces of soul and not a fully-developed song in the catalog.

There's maybe a hint of groove in bass-heavy "Crazy for Leaving," a leavening of heart its staccato guitars, but the song meanders in endless jam, loose bordering on pointless as frontman George Hunter scats along to the repetitive beat. The slight roughness in Hunter's voice may remind you of Leon Russell for a second or two – at least until you actually listen to Leon Russell. As it turns out, Russell is a much subtler stylist, lighter-footed and able to convey emotion with the slightest vocal gesture. Hunter, by comparison, puts cartoonish intensity into nearly every word he rasps out, and by highlighting everything, stomps nuance into the ground.

The Stax comparisons derive, most likely, from "Down by Your Fire," a slow-igniting ballad embellished with swells of brass. It's not a bad attempt really, though it will pale if you put it next to any Memphis Horns classic, say Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" or Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." The thing is that the horns have to lead somewhere, blasting you upward into an inexorable hook. In "Down By Your Fire," they ignite briefly and go nowhere.

And that leaves us with the other obvious comparison – Dave Matthews, Phish, Dispatch and O.A.R. At its heart, Catfish Haven is a jam band, all warmth and groove and endless vamps in pot-smoke-heavy afternoons. Lots of people like jam bands, and if you're one of them, you may very well enjoy this band's relaxed and undemanding vibe. But are they the next big thing? A worthy successor to Redding? Not quite. Not even close.

By Jennifer Kelly

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