The pandemic affected us all, but perhaps musicians more than any others. The Wide-Eyed Lounge Cats out of Baltimore took the opportunity afforded by the loss of gigs and gatherings to practice and evolve their sound and to record an album of rich, jazzy, saxophone-heavy, contemplative songs called Cats in a Coal Mine. The title is a reference to “canary in a coal mine” and captures for them the call of hope in uncertain and dangerous times.
It is a varied collection of tunes, written by different members of the band and covering such themes as self-discovery, changing times, the power of music, and the salvation found in community. The album begins with an instrumental, “Jenny’s House Plant,” a song that they describe as an homage to home. Ryan’s Comstock’s beautiful saxophone is on display and the track readies the listener for the tight knit, explorative sound that adorns the rest of the record.
The second song, “Further Down,” written by Comstock deals with the paradox that we usually don’t seek to improve or change ourselves “Until the trouble comes around.” “How much further down must we go / Cause I can’t see the sun / Will we ever learn our lesson / Before it’s all said and done.” It’s a dark sounding song, to match the heaviness of the lyrics. It’s a powerful way to catch the listener’s attention in the beginning of the album, communicating that before we comment or experience upon the world, we have to acknowledge the conflict in ourselves.
It is followed by the song “Outside,” written by Christian Ventimiglia, a song written in the gospel style (and opening with a piano rendition of “Amazing Grace”), which is about the longing most of us shared to get back outside and with our friends. They have commented on how supportive their friends and musical community in what, for musicians, was a terrible and frightening time. “We don’t need, heaven sent / Just a little to pay the rent / Nothing makes sense, I just want to see my friends / Won’t you sing it again?” To solidify the message of community and solidarity and hope, they had their friends sing in the choir which blesses the song.
The rest of the tracks cover ground from the experience in New York Jazz clubs to the rivers of the Grand Canyon to a lullaby about perseverance. For a pandemic album, it paints a picture of a big and wondrous world, while facing head on the struggles implicit in a reality of struggle and strife. The band is so extraordinary throughout, it makes you feel the frustration and loss they must have felt, not getting to play live for their fans and attendees.
It’s an impressive collection of songs that clocks in at forty minutes and that scratches the itch for good music many of us our feeling after almost two years away from live music. These jazz cats not only know how to play, but to write a good song. It’s hard to pick a favorite on this album, because the songs’ themes and arrangements are so varied it offers a satisfying buffet of sound. The recording, done at the Watermelon Room in Baltimore City, is very well done and captures the many layers to their sound. You might find a new favorite band, listening to this album. It’s a deep and moving listen, that hopefully we’ll hear in clubs again sometime soon.