Cate Le Bon’s latest set of songs, Crab Day (Drag City), finds the Welsh singer-songwriter expanding her indie-folk horizons.
Crab Day’s title track opens the album with the line: “It doesn’t pay to sing your songs.” It’s an appropriate introduction to an album that builds on the work of past artists without sounding overly derivative of any popular music act or subgenre. The upside of Le Bon’s ever-expanding creative freedom—it surely pays well emotionally if not fiscally—adds more meaning to this opening mantra.
Since 2010, Cate Le Bon’s chillingly beautiful voice has been featured in collaborations with several high-profile bands, including Funeral for a Friend’s Matt Davies, fellow Welsh singer-songwriter the Gentle Good, and tour mates Manic Street Preachers.
But even before then, Le Bon was working on unique solo work. Her earliest Welsh language EP Edrych yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg arrived in 2008. The following year, debut LP Me Oh My found Le Bon shifting to English language story-songs in the folk singer tradition. Her moody vocals and methodical enunciations on these releases are regularly compared to Nico, although her range and imagination owes more to Kate Bush. Le Bon gained widespread acclaim for her 2013 album Mug Museum.
With an established sound and newfound buzz, it would have made sense for Le Bon to write a new set of songs comparable to Mug Museum for her fourth full-length. But Instead of a folk and psych-oriented release, Le Bon entered the studio last spring to record what can best be described as a post-punk film soundtrack. It actually is a soundtrack for an 11-minute film: Berlin-based filmmaker Phil Collins’ surreal visual take on Crab Day was unveiled online a few days before the album’s April 15 release date.
The title track off Crab Day is one of several songs borrowing liberally from post-punk’s rich history of ramshackle simplicity and unorthodox self-expression. Le Bon drifts further into unexpected territory on cuts like “Wonderful” and “Find Me” without robbing listeners of her past works’ allure.
Other tracks are pastiches of various strands from popular music’s past, including elements of cabaret, ‘60s baroque and French pop, and modern indie-pop and folk sounds. These songs cast Le Bon as someone who would’ve made an amazing songwriter-for-hire in a past life. For example, “I’m a Dirty Attic” would’ve made a great Marianne Faithfull single at any point in her 50-plus year career.
How then does an artist close an album marked by so many varied strands of lyrical and musical imagination? Le Bon ends Crab Day with “What’s Not Mine,” a daring seven-and-a-half minute jumble of sounds and thoughts already shared across the previous nine tracks. Influences and approaches become codas, repeated at story’s end. This will be especially effective if this track coincides with the short film’s grand finale.
It’s way too early to consider any “best of 2016” accolades. That said, Crab Day stacks up well creatively against most indie rock rebirths in recent memory. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to compare the rewards of Le Bon’s risky creative shifts to those heard on Deerhunter’s last two albums, with Bradford Cox’s songwriting moving away from instead of toward the Fall’s allure. Like Cox and other indie luminaries, Le Bon has ironed out a definitive sound and approach over time as a songwriter and a vocalist. Whatever she alters to tell new stories or introduce new influences strengthens instead of diminishes her long established individuality.