Cate Le Bon

Mug Museum

As with much music by rising artists, Cate Le Bon’s sound may not be wholly original, but the way in which she combines styles of the past is more creative than many. An unmistakably Welsh singer who cites Pavement as instigating her musical coming-of-age and who is often lumped in with the "freak folk" contingent despite not sounding very much like that scene’s peers, Le Bon’s music has grown a bit more Technicolor since debut release Me Oh My.

Le Bon’s second release, Cyrk, granted her a US tour with St. Vincent and perhaps the exposure needed to shack up with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom producer Noah Georgeson to create Le Bon’s newest, Mug Museum. Although a bit more polished sounding than past endeavours, Le Bon is blessed enough with both sound melodic sense and a strain of Welsh peculiarity that lends Mug Museum a singular sound.

Many like to talk about Le Bon’s accented vocals, but few compliment the versatility of her voice. As someone who came to fame duetting with Gruff Rhys on his electro-hop side project Neon Neon, Le Bon has proven she can do divaish nonchalance as ably as more traditional rock ballad fare (see her turn on ‘4 Lonely Roads’, a standout from Manic Street Preachers’ Rewind The Film). On her solo material, Le Bon has deviated between doleful and playful, two moods which have splintered into a kaleidoscope of feelings on Mug Museum.

Some Pavement nuances are still there, and there is always room for some ideas cribbed from an Os Mutantes album or two, but there are now also trickles of Stereolab on opener ‘I Can’t Help You’, and maybe a bit of St. Vincent’s riffage translated into fractured keyboard lines on ‘Wild’. And what a strange relief it is that the album dispenses its weakest track, ‘Are You With Me Now?’ – with its possibly accidental but most likely winkingly intentional nod to fellow Welsh artist Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ – so early on, thus promising Le Bon’s trademark vibrant morbidity at full force, straight on through to the closing title track.

As aforementioned duets and guest turns have earned Le Bon some worthy recognition, ‘I Think I Knew’, a duet with Mike Hadreas, or Perfume Genius, is an instant Mug Museum winner. Familiar without sounding derivative, brief without leaving the listener wanting more, its wistful air ably upholds Le Bon’s reputation as a choice duetting partner. That Hadreas’ and Le Bon’s voices are fairly close in range works to enhance the song’s gauzy intimations.

The relatively quiet ending of ‘Mirror Me’, ‘Cuckoo Through the Walls’ and ‘Mug Museum’ offer a solid respite from more eclectic fare like ‘Duke’, where Le Bon’s heightening vocals work as an endurance test that is ultimately worth the challenge.

With each passing release, Le Bon’s being labeled as a folk artist becomes ever more confounding, and threatens to pigeonhole her as something far more bucolic and traditional than she actually is. Folk roots are subtly discernible, but not nearly as much as a fondness for more exotic – and even somewhat psychedelic – preexisting genres. Injecting these genres with a bit of indie fuzz is a novel concept that has yet to grow tiresome in Le Bon’s hands. She’s already on her way, but here’s hoping Le Bon can one day shuck off the trappings of "freak folk" by becoming that real rarity – a 21st century career artist.

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