Release Date: Apr 15, 2016
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Cate Le Bon's young niece did not take kindly to the idea of April Fool's Day. Instead, she declared, she would be celebrating Crab Day, and inaugurated an annual tradition of drawing crustaceans. And why the heck not? The budding surrealist realized early on that nonsense is often the best response to nonsense, that the constructs we use to prop up our lives are often totally arbitrary.
Of all the generic categories of music classification, “folk music” may be the most restrictive, at least in its use as a commercial term. Anyone familiar with Cate Le Bon knows her music decisively escapes any single designation given to it, which, more often than not, happens to be that of “folk music”. Le Bon’s music is steeped in a rich history of the work of culturally rebellious artists from, yes, the folk world, but also well beyond it, from Patti Smith’s iconic combination of street-wise intellectualism and avant-garde taste to Joni Mitchell’s rustic poetics to the Raincoats’ distinctly feminine strain of post-punk.
A curious muddle of smashed life-fragments, Cate Le Bon invented a new language on her last album ‘Mug Museum’. She took all the things we touch every day - loss, coffee cups, cigarettes, beaten egg yolks - turned them in her lyrical hands, and gave them a tangible weight, with that yawning, unobtrusive delivery of hers. She made them mean something more.
After third album Mug Museum, Welsh art-popper Cate Le Bon has turned the last of her pottery-wheel twee and, on Crab Day, creates a springy rubber-band-ball of angular guitar, squalling saxophone and elastic basslines. Single Wonderful, for example, sounds like it has popped out of a Warhol Campbell’s soup can. Mostly, though, the album has the eccentric air of an am-dram troupe who have raided the dressing up box, hopped in the camper van and escaped to the seaside to make their own fun (which is sort of what happened – it was recorded on the Pacific Coast, California, with musicians including Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa).
"A coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense," reckons Cate Le Bon of her fourth album. Difficult to argue: Crab Day is a madcap wonder, and if its singular aesthetic is ultimately less an advancement of the vision and more a honing of the craft, its offbeat artistry is way beyond the everyday humdrum. Those doleful vocals are still Le Bon's unmistakable trademark and, set against her teeter-totter arrangements (clipped, dry guitars; jerky rhythms; puckish horns), they support a rich and intrepid musicality.
At first listen, in fact for the first few listens, the fourth album from Wales’ often musically omnipresent Cate Le Bon seems flat, baffling and without the hooks on which to hang those thoughts that urge you to return. While that might be an odd way to begin a review of what is admittedly a wonky, vaguely folk album, it seems only fair to mention it, because Crab Day swiftly blossoms into a record chock-full of hooks, lyrical images and melodies that stick. Passages that seemed lumpen, dull even, swiftly become your favourites – like the insistent repetition of the title track which opens the album.
A few years in the California sun doesn’t seem to have affected Cate Le Bon’s music too much, and thank goodness for that. She’s always had an ear for the tuneful — and the abstruse — and her fourth album, Crab Day, doesn’t find her deviating from that left field trajectory. With her third album, 2013’s Mug Museum, Le Bon stripped back the arrangements to an almost minimalistic point.
"A coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense, each propping the other up," says Cate le Bon of her fourth solo album Crab Day. This is the follow-up to her excellent 2013 album Mug Museum but in reality it's the natural successor to last year's Hermits on Holiday, the album she recorded with White Fence's Tim Presley under the name DRINKS. If anything it's weirder than that.
There's greater beauty in imagination than there is in information, and Cate Le Bon knows it. "Crab Day is an old holiday. Crab Day is a new holiday. Crab Day isn't a holiday at all," she says of her new album in its press materials, and it would seem that Le Bon applies one simple but effective ethos to her music and the discussion around it alike: include nothing that could be left out and nothing that isn't certain to provoke questions.
The fourth full-length outing from the singular Welsh pop confectioner, Crab Day is as peculiar and capricious as anything Cate Le Bon has done thus far, which is saying that it sounds a great deal like her three previous long players. For fans of her particular brand of knotty, carnivalesque art-pop, which sounds like an amalgam of Os Mutantes, Nico, Stereolab, Syd Barrett, and Shirley Collins, Crab Day will be a delight. Le Bon's clever and often abstract turns of both melody and phrase are abundant throughout, and the addition of horns, woodwinds, and the occasional marimba to the mix evoke even stranger hues than usual -- trading in the deep greens and grays of her homeland for the terminally pleasant climate of Los Angeles may have had some influence on the album, but Crab Day is a largely canonical affair, despite all of the extra window dressing.
There must be something in the air in South Wales. Perhaps it’s the lingering influence of the legendary Merlin, who dwelt in these parts many centuries ago, but perhaps more than any other part of the UK, this region of valleys, rugby fanatics and male voice choirs has also produced a steady stream of delightfully quirky, gently psychedelic folk pop acts. From established names like Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci to more recent additions such as Meilyr Jones, this chunk of the principality has consistently punched above its weight by conjuring up some of the most inventive, atmospheric and melodically rich music of the past couple of decades.
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.
There’s something very cheering about the quietly blossoming career of Cate Le Bon. Each of the Welsh songwriter’s last three albums have won new fans for her idiosyncratic guitar pop, and she is now a cherished indie institution. Her fourth has the usual abundance of ideas; its scratchy guitars, free-associating lyrics, plinking keyboards are crammed into three-minute songs until they strain at the sides.
Cate Le Bon — Crab Day (Drag City)The questions posed by Cate Le Bon’s latest batch of songs are well served by the cover art: having shaved off one’s eyebrows and painted arcs under the lower lids, how long can you make eye contact with a face partially reversed? Wrong at first sight, Le Bon’s visage escapes from uncanny valley only with a steady stare.The songs that make up Crab Day have the same effect, full of approachable motifs and lovely passages, always with a few lines unnervingly askew. Her early records have plenty of near-capsizing moments decorating the folk melodies, but the melodies steady the boat. These new songs steer away from calms.
The singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon, who grew up on a farm in western Wales and now lives in Los Angeles, is a practical eccentric. She begins her fourth album with the line “It doesn’t pay to sing your songs,” and she may be right. But she sings one, anyway, marking a place on an imaginary calendar, when perhaps it does pay for people to be kind to one another.