CATE LE BON – Crab Day (Drag City): If Me Oh My was any indication, Cate Le Bon set out to be the Nico that never was—tuneful and able to hold the proper note, neither completely emotionally stunted nor dedicated to gloom mongering. There’s something in her voice—her accent, her alternating huskiness and whistle pitch—that has the same aura of mystery, and while her work’s decidedly lighter than the Velvet Underground, it’s hard to deny the influence of their guitar churn. And while she often enough falls victim to neo-folk (or psych-folk neo-psych or whatever the fuck you call this) navel-gazing, she always has a few songs I really like—“Puts Me to Work” or “Are You With Me Now” or “Ploughing Out Part 1” or “Sad Sad Feet.” She’s about as perfect an example as you can get of an unusual but fairly talented artist whose albums never quite hit the mark, and who’ll one day if she’s lucky get the best-of comp she deserves—though these days that’ll probably amount to little more than a connoisseur’s Spotify playlist.
But like Nico’s heavy German accent and thick vocals, Le Bon’s wonky Welsh enunciation isn’t interesting or pleasant enough on its own to sustain an album, and so needs the backing of talented musicians to steer the emotional direction of the songs, the rhythmic oomph that would otherwise be sorely lacking—just imagine the entirety of Chelsea Girls without the strings; now imagine some of Le Bon’s best without the drums or that twangy guitar. Her first three albums forged a similar trail—she was attracted to the idea of Nico’s husky, sleek, sexy, and way accented vocals, but too attached to the low-key guitar rock of the Velvet Underground to go full weirdo.
But Crab Day, wouldn’t you know it, is where she goes full weirdo, jettisoning most of what kept me coming back even if none of her albums as a whole appealed to my gut. Le Bon puts a stronger emphasis on dissonance from the very beginning: “Crab Day” could’ve fooled me for a Pere Ubu track had her distinct voice swept in at the minute mark. The follow-up slow-burner “Love is Not Love” puts her voice front and center over a strange and sparse guitar noodle. It’s not an aesthetic that’s completely out of left field for her, and it’s not that it fails in obvious ways—Cyrk and Mug Museum were back-ended with the kind of trite art rock no musician ever wants to admit is filler but most definitely is—but in the past she usually had the courtesy to stick in a few songs that were consistent if simple, instead of the careening, meandering, and downright goofy performances she gives here.
I have to admit it grows on me a little bit every time I listen, but that’s also kind of the thing—I’m only listening to it at this point to write something about it, not because I’m restless to hear it again. In short, it’s not an album that would get me to go see her on tour. But hey, sounds to me like she’s having fun—that’s something Nico sure as hell didn’t know how to do. B PLUS (*)