The palette of Me Oh My, the debut from Cate Le Bon, was stark and to the point. Its appealing, if rudimentary, production values allowed the songs to speak for themselves, and they ranged from the whimsical (“Sad Sad Feet”) to the apocalyptic (“Terror of the Man”). For her follow up, Cryk, the Welsh born singer-songwriter adds layers of instrumental texture and embellishment, making her austere and sturdy songs even more transfixing. Ultimately, though, it’s her sheer self-possession as a singer that makes it hard to divert your attention, rather like the aural equivalent of not being able to take your figurative eyes off of someone.
Much has been made of the Nico influence, so let’s consider that. First, Le Bon’s vocal range is higher; her dynamic range more extreme, and her reliance on and comfort with harmonization are greater (including plenty of self-harmonization). Where the comparison works is with respect to a shared melancholy affect, a certain precise diction (rooted in English perhaps being a second language – Le Bon is also a Welsh speaker), and a tendency to enter and accent just behind the beat. The specter of the Velvet Underground also extends to Le Bon’s musical sensibility. It’s the sound of loud, bright guitars and dissonant keyboards parts, as well as a certain rhythmic lurch, you can hear it in the galloping syncopation of the album’s opening track “Falcon Eyed,” with its “Sister Ray” lurch.
But this is a post-Velvet vision distinctly informed by Le Bon’s roots in Welsh music and culture (and after all, John Cale was a fellow Welshman). Her art just sounds rooted in the Welsh culture. You’d almost have to have visited Wales to understand. It’s something to do with their mixture of hospitality and reserve, welcoming and insularity, the way some greet you warmly in English one moment only to switch languages conspicuously when entering conversation with a nearby friend. I love the Welsh. Part of my bloodline is Welsh. It’s a fascinating place, and some of the best Welsh artists (Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci … Cate Le Bon) have a natural Welsh aura that somehow conveys the country’s curious cross between the connected and the remote. Le Bon first came to prominence as Gruff Rhys’s collaborator on the Neon Neon project. Recorded in Wales and featuring an all, or almost all, Welsh cast, including Meilyr Jones and Gwion Llewellyn from the excellent, if little known, band Race Horses, Cyrk is a distillation of that national sensibility, told through the eyes of a very individual and bohemian female artist.