Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top Ten Countdown Continues with No. 3, Cate Le Bon- Cyrk (The Control Group)

In previous years Reverberations conducted a marathon, day by day, countdown of the top 25 albums from the waning year. This year, between today and the end of the month, we will take a bit less ambitious approach, chronicling only the top 10 releases of 2012.  In January, in addition to reviews of brand spanking new music, we will also make occasion to reflect on some of the year's other fine recordings. 

For our top 10 countdown, many of these selections will have been covered previously in Reverberations, in which event we will simply link you to the earlier review. A few of these, however, will require new reviews. 

Here, is an earlier review of our no. 3 title:

Cate Le Bon - Cyrk (The Control Group) 

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.

“Falcon Eyed,” beyond the Velvet touch, also sounds like Le Bon and crew draw from sounds that were ‘freak folk,’ before the genre had a name, the Incredible String Band in particular, and from a stack of Seventies Kraut-prog records that might have Faust at the top of the pile. “Puts Me to Work,” like most of Le Bon’s lyrics, suggests more than states, but seems to concern domestic dissatisfaction; it features bashing drums and stratospheric harmonies, stacked at one point into a “Twist and Shout” style build.

Sometimes Le Bon’s plain poesy recalls the reserved acquiescence of Nick Drake, as on the title track – Le Bon quietly insisting that “now is not a good time to leave me all alone,” a sentiment full of portent, delivered unsentimentally. The sweetly discordant guitar and keyboards, and those Mike-Robin-Rose-Licorice harmonies, all add to the quiet, but roiling delivery.

“Julia” and “Greta” both suggest a kinship with Elliott Smith, and more particularly with a shared Beatles (acid Lennon) fixation. These songs have a “Strawberry Fields Forever” vintage saturation, best evidenced in “Greta’s” blossoming orchestrations, as horn lines veer and sway between a bluesy take on Salvation Army Band mournfulness and free jazz ecstasy – all in support of lyrics like “you existed in moonlight before you were born.” Thanks to Le Bon’s exquisitely reserved delivery, the patchouli factor is present, but kept in check.

The sweet clash between musical elements runs throughout Le Bon’s sensibility. “Fold the Cloth,” starts with limpid guitar, slips into Stereolab sensuality before Syd Barrett-spitting guitar goes toe to toe with Le Bon’s angelic vocal, until the song bangs away into a sudden, abrupt, and Beatlesque conclusion. “Man I Wanted” sounds as much like warning as profession of affection. Le Bon glides from conversational delivery to an eerie soprano, professing her desire to be the beloved’s “greatest host.”

The slightly creepy mood continues with “Through the Mill,” a rather bestial tale embellished by what sounds like some mental patient playing scales on a piano that’s tumbling slowly down the stairs. In a good way.

 Cyrk (Polish, off all things, by the way, for circus) ends with a two-part extravaganza called “Ploughing Out.” Implicitly connecting to her rural roots, part one of “Ploughing” concerns melancholy and self-acceptance, as she compares her emotions (“on the last day of the year I’m just happy to be here”) to her beloved’s (“and on the worst day of his life, he’d still love more things than I like. Taping melodies of times in his mind”), contrasting his voracious appetite with her need for discretion. It commences with a beautiful guitar figure, reminiscent of the Velvets’ “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” sounding like something Wes Anderson might easily plumb for a future film; an inventory of small blessings and difference, it resonates charm. Part-two executes a barely detectable shift in downward fidelity for jarring and excellent effect. The refrain, defiant and resilient, repeats “when it goes off we’ll be the on the last boat out of here; you’ll be the ringing in my ear, still we never say die.” The jolly end-time mood extends to the instrumental coda that ends the song – a feast of dueling themes, rather like the fade to “All You Need is Love,” includes a saxophonist doing his best Albert Ayler against what sounds like Terry Riley arranging for crumhorns and sackbuts. And it’s all capped off with what sounds like the guitar chord that ends … well, “The End,” by the Doors. Nice touch. Like that chord, Cyrk lingers, compelling you to return.

Reverberating: 9.0 (originally 8.8)