As sure as if it had been mapped in the stars, or written in a prophecy buried deep beneath the sands of the Marfa desert, a collaboration between Cate Le Bon and Bradford Cox was always something of an inevitability. After years of admiring each other’s work from afar, the two finally converged on Marfa, Texas in 2018, at Mexican Summer’s annual Marfa Myths festival. Gaps puttied by a band of frequent Cate Le Bon co-conspirators on drums, saxophone, percussion, keys and additional guitar (Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint, Stephen Black of Sweet Baboo, Tim Presley of White Fence, and Samur Khouja); the EP–fourth in Mexican Summer’s Myths series–was written and recorded in just one week.
For both Le Bon and Cox, Myths 004 signals a change of tack: meticulousness thrown to the wind as spontaneous, jammy tales of firemen and 5p plastic bags, unbrushed hair and shoelessness and makeup-daubed landscapes—roll effortlessly off their cuffs. “We committed ourselves to embracing the chaos, surrendering to all moments and moods that travelled through,” says Le Bon. “It’s a crude holiday scrapbook shared by all involved, an amalgamation of the changes in mood and light that shaped the days.”
Though Myths 004’s seven tracks are wondrous in their variety, they sit perfectly alongside one another–the gently melancholic cutlery drawer percussion of sole single “Secretary,” and the lippy cynicism and wit of final hurrah ‘What Is She Wearing’ united; along with every other shape, character, prang, plod and playful bite, by a feeling of sheer joy. ¡Viva la colaboración!
It was on a mountainside in Cumbria that the first whispers of CATE LE BON’s fifth studio album poked their buds above the earth. “There’s a strange romanticism to going a little bit crazy and playing the piano to yourself and singing into the night,” she says, recounting the year living solitarily in the Lake District which gave way to Reward. By day, ever the polymath, Le Bon painstakingly learnt to make solid wood tables, stools and chairs from scratch; by night she looked to a second-hand Meers—the first piano she had ever owned—for company, “windows closed to absolutely everyone”, and accidentally poured her heart out. The result is an album every bit as stylistically varied, surrealistically-inclined and tactile as those in the enduring outsider’s back catalogue, but one that is also intensely introspective and profound; her most personal to date. Over this extended period a cast of trusted and loved musicians joined Le Bon, KHOULA and fellow co-producer JOSIAH STEINBRICK—STELLA MOZGAWA (WARPAINT) on drums and percussion; STEPHEN BLACK (aka SWEET BABOO) on bass and saxophone and longtime collaborators HUW EVANS (aka H HAWKLINE) and JOSH KLINGHOFFER on guitars—and were added to the album, “one by one, one on one”. Be it on her more minimalist, acoustic-leaning 2009 debut album Me Oh My or critically acclaimed, liquid-riffed 2013 LP Mug Museum as well as 2016s Crab Day, Cate LeBon’s solo work—and indeed also her production work, such as that carried out on recent Deerhunter album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?—has always resisted pigeonholing, walking the tightrope between krautrock aloofness and heartbreaking tenderness; deadpan served with a twinkle in the eye, a flick of the fringe and a lick of the Telecaster.
Beguiling Welsh musician Cate Le Bon released her new album, Crab Day, earlier this year, and she’s following it up with a 4-song EP in January made up of leftover songs from that writing period. “Rock Pool is the killed darlings from the Crab Day sessions brought back to life on a classic 2-2 formation,” she says. “Written under the same banner of the impossibly absurd and emerging to unimaginable bedlam.” Produced by Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick, and featuring musicians H. Hawkline, Stephen Black and Stella Mozgawa, Rock Pool spins and swirls the waters with carnival pop, synth, drone and dance, all beamed along the pan-electric ray of Cates immutable blank stare. Short-and-sweet-play fun of a highly ambiguous nature.
Imagine a hollowed-out coconut with a paper umbrella, full of a powerful psychedelic. One sip and you’re along for the ride with Cate Le Bon on her fourth album, Crab Day. The Welsh singer-songwriter moved to Los Angeles in 2013, and it’s clear Le Bon’s latest was inspired by a Pacific sensibility that translates musically to a vibe reminiscent of a tiki bar in Wonderland.
The tracklist carefully maps out a journey from start to finish. The opening chords of the title song signal to buckle in, with an insistent, rhythmic guitar followed by funky, beachy keys. These parts move with a frantic energy that the album’s first lines challenge, as Le Bon’s eerie vocals slice through: “It doesn’t pay to sing your songs.” Still, she’s singing hers, and the intonation isn’t bitter; instead, what she’s saying is that where we’re going, money doesn’t matter. With a haunting voice, she beckons to follow her down the rabbit hole, where there will be a celebration of a holiday no one’s ever heard of. Toward the end of the song, her ghostly falsetto returns: “Put your love in me on Crab Day … who am I to love you on Crab Day?” She evokes a Los Angeles cult leader of the 1960s, but the effect isn’t as seductive or tantalizing as the real thing; instead, its more like witnessing that hypnotic power through the remove of a documentary. Rather than achieving that undeniable emotional pull, Crab Day ends up taxing, rather than delighting, the listener.
The strongest tracks on the album are those on which Le Bon fully executes the surreal ocean-holiday theme. Jangly guitars and layers of spectral generate a sense of unreality on “Wonderful”. The coda breaks down into cacophony over a repeated lyric, which deepens the “we’re all mad here” feel. Then, at the album’s halfway point, Le Bon unleashes “I’m a Dirty Attic” and lets her vocals take center stage. Her vocal range shines, straining to plumb her alto depths all the way up through a soaring falsetto. In that ability to channel sunny highs and ominous lows, the cult leader aesthetic comes through. The strange, associative lyrics (“Paint me in a picture with a new face / I’m a body of dreams for you”) and intense guitar come together for an immersive, eerie song engaging enough to convince anyone to follow Le Bon wherever she’s going next.
The similarly effective “We Might Revolve” jumps wildly from ethereal falsetto to a quiet spoken word and then right back into the stratosphere. At the song’s close, the unravelling of a guitar solo takes the listener along with it. Unfortunately, Le Bon’s doesn’t always commit so fully to that imaginative playfulness. Tracks like the melancholy and forgettable “How Do You Know?” and “Love Is Not Love” undermine the songs around them and erode the album as a whole by drawing attention to the artifice of the concept. Though it spans just ten pop songs, the album drags considerably.
The Crab Day journey wraps up with “What’s Not Mine”, in which Le Bon brings the listener along with her back up to the surface. It’s not a coincidence that the vocals on this track are the least intelligible and accessible of the whole album — at least at first. It’s a little melancholy, just like the end of any trip, highlighting the unreality and boundary-invasion ideal in an immersive artistic experience: “I was lounging in your disguise/ I was reading through your dead eyes/ I don’t even know what’s not mine.” It’s sad, and weird, and through the very long guitar solo, the listener is reborn and spit back out into whatever reality they had inhabited prior to pressing play.
Crab Day marks a considerable step forward, appealing to existing fans while also announcing a huge period of growth. At times she reaches new, fantastic heights, all while staying true to what’s made Le Bon so bewitching in the past: her haunting vocals and spooky sensibility. As Le Bon grows in confidence and vision, her work will grow even more immersive — perhaps even transformative.
“Cate Le Bon, born in West Wales, raised under the shadow of a woolen mill, dressed by the field and by the rain. Tim Presley (a.k.a. White Fence), from San Francisco, grew under and over the bridges and streets, combed by corners and by concrete.”
“As consummate musicians and students of pop, Le Bon and Presley aren’t able to revert to Shaggs-like naivete, but they’re able to suspend their aesthetes’ sensibility in order to embrace chaos, even silliness. There’s unmistakable precedent to the sound where they meet, the dub inflections and buzzing guitar welts. Hermits evokes the captivating disconnect of a late-’70s John Peel show, where the Slits and Delta 5 segued into Strictly Personal-era Beefheart’s blues-pop abstractions—you half expect to hear Ivor Cutler pop up to recite a poem in between tracks.” –Pitchfork 7.8/10