On the surface, it is possible to dismiss Catholic Action as just another indie-rock band. We’ve got metric tons of them at this point, and when a potted biography can read as effectively a replica of so many that have come before – made their name with a debut a couple of years ago, reaped some critical acclaim, wanted to channel some grander ambitions, and here we are – but there’s no reason to dismiss them solely on that basis either. Indie-rock has undergone some fairly marked shifts in tone and focus recently, finding its most exciting names back in the underground again and operating in a way that brings back a long-forgotten feeling of the alternative and the independent. In its widest blanket form, indie-rock has really begun to hit the ground running once again, and it’s bands like Catholic Action that have proven to be the lifeblood of such a movement. There’s a rather small catchment individually, but in a case where the cumulative sound can be more deeply mined and pervades the scene on a larger scale, there’s a lot to keep an eye on.
And not only does that feels like a rather neat summation of Celebrated By Strangers, but it lays out the expectations that an album like this should be aiming for which Catholic Action regularly hit. What’s more, amongst all the familiarity and general indie trappings, Celebrated By Strangers enjoys the moments where it feels like its own thing, and for an album that is projecting itself out into the turbulence just like everyone else, there’s something to appreciate about having some fun when doing it. It’s a key contributor in what makes Celebrated By Strangers feel as well-rounded as it does; there’s a bit more nuance built in to Catholic Action’s particular take on indie-rock, and it’s overall impressive to see how far that goes.
Of course, broken down to its component parts, especially thematically, it can be more difficult to escape the general familiarity of Catholic Action’s approach when this ground can be particularly healthily trodden as a socially-conscious framework. The emphasis on a fragmented society on One Of Us and the need for mobilisation to get things done on People Don’t Protest Enough have both been touched on countless times before, as have the increased feelings of self-loathing and medication on And It Shows, and the predatory music industry that looks to elevate the divide between artist and consumer while striving to keep everything as safe and homogeneous as possible on I’m No Artist and Sign Here respectively. Where the improvements come in is how willing Catholic Action are to take some jabs when necessary and generally look to foster a lighter tone if possible that’s a refreshing break from how dour a lot of the same subject matter is portrayed within the same genre. The cleverer linguistic fields do a lot here (“the indie-pop sweatshop” on Sign Here is a great turn of phrase), and paired with a wryness in Chris McCrory’s vocals that’s become such a dependable staple, there’s definitely more colour and life here than usual. The detours into the light certainly help too; Yr Old Dad sits as an island of brightness and eked-out humour among all the disaster, and Four Guitars (For Scottish Independence) closes things out with suitably triumphant joy and hope.
The bigger focus on expanding the breadth of sound does a lot to help with this, mostly as Catholic Action make their roots in a lot of recognisable branches of recent indie-rock clear, but they aren’t leaned on so much that they’re just more of the same. Recognisable tones like the grubby post-punk of Grange Hell (South London In D) and One Of Us provide decent grounding, but there’s a classic rock flair that’s overlaid to keep that sound feeling bigger and more buoyant. There’s an unavoidable exuberance to the screaming, Thin Lizzy-esque walls of guitars on I’m Not Artist and Four Guitars (For Scottish Independence), and the rollick of Another Name For Loneliness modelled after Bruce Springsteen in its twinkling production feels surprisingly effortless in the way it weaves that influence into a pretty cut-and-dry indie-rock setting. There’s a natural sense of progression and flow, but that way that Catholic Action inflate it with a lot more colour and motion does a lot of good for them, stabilised by a ragtag production style that has grit and warmth but doesn’t feel too restrictive in its roughness. If anything, it could offer a little more to And It Shows and There Will Always Be A Light, two songs which already feel out of place thanks to a popping, synthetic beat without really any body, and which can only exacerbate the treacle-slow paces of both for some profound dips in an otherwise solid bout of momentum.
Then again, it’s to be expected that an album firing as widely as Celebrated By Strangers is would hit a stumbling block in some fashion at some point; the fact that there’s so few of them sits pretty well on Catholic Action’s shoulders with regards to how well they can manage their place in indie-rock. This feels like a fresher spin on a tried-and-true sound while keeping the workability of said sound firmly intact, and between grasps of wit, melody and instrumental power, it makes for a well-rounded body of work with its fair share of compelling high points. The lows aren’t exactly unnoticeable, but it’s easy enough to not hold them against Catholic Action too much and that’s worth taking note of. Ultimately, this all feels like another welcome piece to slot into the ever-turning tide of indie-rock, having the heart and ground-level gusto to make an impact while taking the crucial steps forward into bold and exciting territory.
For fans of: Fontaines D.C., Heavy Rapids, White Reaper
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Celebrated By Strangers’ by Catholic Action is released on 27th March on Modern Sky Records.