Lead singer and acoustic guitar bully George Hunter uses the full intro to Catfish Haven’s Secretly Canadian debut EP, Please Come Back, to say: “We’re Catfish Haven, and this is what we do.” And this is exactly what the three members of the band do over the course of the next six tracks, making up for what they lack in membership with muscular bass, drums, acoustic guitar and, best of all, vocals. That they’re named after the trailer park where Hunter grew up isn’t backhanded or condescending; he knows better than anyone what he has: inspiration, redneck cred and now a foot in the door of the Chicago scene.
If the Kings of Leon are a Southern-fried version of the Strokes, then Catfish Haven gives us a Midwestern take on the Kings of Leon. I realize that Strokes comparisons can be tiresome, but here it’s more a product of the rapid fire but dance-y guitar patterns than any reference to style or sound. Hunter has a vocal style similar to that of Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill, who’s been described as singing with a mouthful of hash brownies. The difference here is that Hunter’s tongue isn’t as lazy or Southern, and it doesn’t sound like he’s garbling over anything so much as swallowing a chewed up light bulb. The coarseness makes for a natural distortion, and it’s the centerpiece, thanks to a formula that runs through a simple checklist of stripping away the superfluous in order to open it up for some campfire rock.
Keeping with standard blues-rock themes, this EP seems to catch Hunter at the tail end of a catastrophic relationship, the jewel being the simple but catchy “Madelin.” But it’s not just the acoustic and vocals that get beat, crushed, nailed and scraped. Bassist Miguel Castillo and drummer Ryan Farnham each consistently test the durability of their instruments. But, hey, they’re Catfish Haven, and this is what they do. “Still Hungover” is appropriately titled for a jilted aggro-stomp that brings to mind the Queens of the Stone Age’s popular single “No One Knows.” Most impressive is how seasoned and confident the entire operation comes off. Hunter isn’t afraid to tame his howl or climb the ladder for ballads “Crying Shame” and “The Love I’m Saving,” although these are the EP’s weaker moments.
2005 was a disappointing year for the sophomore releases of 2004’s buzz bands. Both British Sea Power and the Kings of Leon ditched the rawness that made their debuts so compelling, prettying up before landing a bit awkward. If Catfish Haven’s full-length due out this spring catches fire, it’ll be because they kept it in the trailer park.