Take the Caterwaul test. Put this record on. Hear that voice? Is it a man or is it a woman?
Fact is, until the sixth song, the softly acoustic “Small Things in Heaven,” it’s almost impossible to tell. When Betsy Martin (yes, it is a woman) is pitching herself into one of the fittingly named Caterwaul’s wrenching rockers, she could pass for rock’s other great hermaphroditic voice, Marc Bolan of T-Rex. Except that Martin abjures Bolan’s sweetness for the angry, castigative tone of John Lydon of PiL. Anyway, you’re not going to confuse her with Linda Ronstadt.
Even without Martin, Caterwaul, a group of Phoenix refugees now based in L.A., would stand out. The spooky, echoing instrumentation on songs like “Innerlooped” sounds like the Cure with a harder rock edge tacked on. Mark Schafer’s lean glam-slam guitar gives songs like “Alex’ Aphrodisiac” and “Manna and Quail” real kick. Only when Schafer’s guitar is pushed to the background to emphasize Martin’s mandolin playing on “Maybe in a Million Years” does the band lose a good deal of its sonic impact. That’s rare.
Through most of their second album (the first one, 1989’s Pin & Web, is also worth seeking out), the setting is designed for Martin to belt it out like some forlorn banshee. This Caterwaul creates quite a ruckus. (I.R.S.)