Karen Mantler / Eric Mingus / Jonathan Sanborn / Ethan Winogrand

My Cat Arnold

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Singer, harmonica virtuoso, and keyboardist Karen Mantler has inherited her father, Michael Mantler's sense of whimsy and her mother, Carla Bley's musical fearlessness -- not to mention her electric-shredded-wheat hairstyle. Although Mantler's debut album was produced by Bley and new husband Steve Swallow and features fellow avant-jazz offspring Eric Mingus as co-lead vocalist and Jonathan Sanborn on bass, 1989's My Cat Arnold isn't quite jazz, but it's not exactly pop either; the closest comparison is the more out experiments of David Byrne or Laurie Anderson at her most musical. Mantler's lyrics have the childlike primitivism of prime Jonathan Richman; the title track has no hidden meanings, and it's not meant to be ironic. It simply is what it claims to be, a love song to Mantler's cat, Arnold. Some find lyrics like this sophomoric or cutesy, but in songs like the cheerfully fatalistic "People Die" or the breakup saga "My Stove," Mantler is actually finding emotional truths in tiny everyday situations, a lyrical gift that's rare in popular music. The eight-piece band plays Mantler's quirky compositions skillfully, with few of the late-'80s clich├ęs that make other jazz-based albums from the period such a trial. It's not for everyone, but My Cat Arnold signifies the beginning of an increasingly peculiar and rewarding career.

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