The ascendancy of R.E.M. created a major band boom in Athens, Georgia, but some of the resulting combos would have been best left within the privacy of the members’ imaginations. Kilkenny Cats, for example, put their R.E.M. influences to good use on the A-side of a 1984 single, “Attractive Figure,” where singer Tom Cheek’s highly derivative mumbling was interspersed with a buzzy guitar melody.
The quintet’s sole album, Hands Down, escapes the limitations of that influence to veer off in several incongruous directions, some more advisable than others. “Shakin’ in the 60’s” owes a debt to Stipe and Co., but it’s the only full-fledged instance of that here. While manic shred guitar runs amok through the garagey opener (“Night Fall”) and busies up “Country Junk,” “Morning Song” is pleasingly romantic folk-rock, and “Sister Sin” waxes sweet and dramatic. But there’s more: “Tatterman” is, for the time, experimental, “Far Reaching Sign” is a tuneless rocker and “Carousel” gives the drummer (Allen Wagner) too much.
Two years later, having shed one guitarist and switched labels, the Cats released a six-song 12-inch, recorded in Athens (the album was made in Minneapolis). The changes (plus a different producer) did the band a lot of good: instead of a random selection of conflicting styles, Hammer is mostly straight-up ’80s college rock (emphasis on rock) that sounds atmospherically in spots like the Scottish band Fingerprintz. The one stylistic outlier is the doomy “House of Alastor,” in which Cheek does a bit of Mark E. Smith declaiming.