x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Album Review: Mug Museum by Cate Le Bon

The Welsh singer's third album finds her in a sweet spot, somewhere between difficult experiment and approachable folkiness.

Cate Le Bon performs as part of the 2012 Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco, California. Photo by Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images
Cate Le Bon performs as part of the 2012 Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco, California. Photo by Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Cate Le Bon Mug Museum (Turnstile) ⋆⋆⋆⋆

First things first: Cate Le Bon is not the child of Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon. Do not, under any circumstances, mistake her for fame-gilded offspring in the mould of Peaches Geldof, Daisy Lowe or Lily Allen. Le Bon is another type of woman altogether, from the grand tradition of eccentric female vocalists: think Nico, Kate Bush, Cerys Matthews, Tori Amos and Blondie. And this, her third full-length album, finds her in a sweet spot, somewhere between difficult experiment and approachable folksiness.

She’ll never lose the Nico references that have followed her from the start, thanks to that gauche, deep, slightly off-key wobble that plays down her fine voice, not to mention the meandering but simple melodies and the accent (hers is strongly Welsh, rather than German, and she has previously released music entirely written in Welsh). This album does little to dispel the comparisons, with its 1960s-toned instruments and deceptively simple song structures. Indeed, Mirror Me might be a direct nod to the Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror. 

That’s not to say this is a derivative record. Certainly there are discernible influences – not least the California psychedelia that appears to be the consequence of Le Bon’s move to Los Angeles earlier this year. It’s an album sung through the organic fug that real instruments offer – loose timings, odd bar lengths and a semi-improvised feel in songs such as the almost hymnal title track. And it seems touched with diffuse autumn sunlight, notably in I Think I Knew, a beautiful duet with Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius.

But the themes are more melancholic than this would imply, the writing being prompted by the death of Le Bon’s maternal grandmother. Though the lyrics are often opaque, nothing could be clearer than the question in the title of Are You with Me Now? Elsewhere, the haunting, hypnotic Cuckoo Through the Walls blends a sort of fairy-tale lilt with a woozy, weary repetition and dissonance, and Wild has a heavy, grungy gloom.

It’s not all downbeat, though. The opening track, I Can’t Help You, is all chirpy rhythms and twangy guitars, and Sisters has a post-punk drive with Blondie-esque vocals.

Production by Noah Georgeson (of Joanna Newsom fame) is spare, and it is a somewhat slight album, but it’s heartfelt. And that’s something that some of the biggest albums of 2013 failed to offer. 

artslife@thenational.ae