I’ve never had much cause to write an open letter to America before, given that in most people’s minds America ostensibly has everything everyone else has; it just has more of it. More of everything, sold in bigger containers, advertised with sexier smiles and slicker labeling, couriered down straighter roads and exported wholesale far and wide with that added provenance of promise, hope and glory. But as a nation you birthed hip-hop, took rock ‘n’ roll where it needed to go, and even made blues cool again. (The Black Keys to headline Coachella, man, I’m still trying to get my head around that one.) And with the traditional folk leanings of Willis Earl Beal making waves, whose sound is as suited to the archives of Harry Smith as it is to Spotify playlists of hipsters the world over, I’m not sure there’s any need for me to throw in my fifty pence worth.
Nevertheless, new non-American music, or just plain old-fashioned sounding British music in my ears has often given me enough get up to construct a rudimentary soapbox from which to sing songs of praises. Or at the very least shout quite loudly at anyone in earshot with a glamorous TV accent. And it’s with this stance that I write about Cate Le Bon. Partly because I was asked to review her new record by the good folk at Beats Per Minute, mostly because the world at the moment seems to be spinning uncontrollably backward on itself, on this side of the pond at least. And if we really are experiencing both the best and worst of times, in this, the New Year of OMG, then it’s in this age of wisdom and foolishness, light and dark, that CYRK stands out as something for everyone to write home about.
Anyone unfamiliar with Cardiff-based songstress Cate Le Bon will do well to check out her debut album, 2009’s Me Oh My. Released on Irony Bored, a label set up by fellow Welshmen Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, it’s a record that draws on influences almost exclusively European in nature. Although you may already be familiar with Le Bon’s inimitable vocal styling from Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip’s Neon Neon project, on which she sang “I Lust U.” She even supported St. Vincent late last year on her North American tour where BrooklynVegan took pleasure in the “Welch” (sic) singer-songwriter’s, “themes of heartbreak,” and “sadness into her deep, rolling voice.” But to perhaps really get a sense of what she’s all about, and in that shared spirit of historical post colonialism, you should check out her debut Welsh language EP Edrych Yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg. As it’s here you’ll essentially discover the roots of her sound and an approach that surfaces again on this, her latest record, in a much truer and more (un)worldly way. Where that stereotypical Welsh pessimism toward love lost is crystallized and mined out of the vaults of collectable Welsh record labels like Sain and Wren; influenced by artists such as Meic Stevens and Heather Jones, and complimented by the whimsical psychedelic chamber folk of Eastern Europe.
CYRK may be a lot of things, but American it certainly ain’t. Even if the key themes that run through this album are universal enough for everyone to get their hearts around.
Opening song “Falcon Eyed,” as the name might suggest, ushers in that free-spirited flow of an Electric Eden, where electric jams and the ghosts of folk past conspire to make something mountainous in nature with Le Bon’s unique, offhand vocal delivery bringing to mind candid adaptations of Celia Humphris, Sandy Denny or Jacqui McShee. Or maybe Nico, Dorothy Moskowitz and Karen Dalton if you prefer. As the track fades in on itself at the beginning only to whisper itself out at the very end it establishes instantly the fact that you don’t really turn CYRK on, but instead, it turns you on. Like walking in on a happening where Bohemia meets Albion in a cabin in Snowdonia, you arrive without ever really remembering how you got there in the first place.
Serving as CYRK’s only buoyant “dancer” when compared to catchier, more beat-driven inclusions on previous releases such as “Hollow Trees House Hounds” on Me Oh My, it’s interesting that on this record, the first real album I hope the world will hear from Cate Le Bon, she has chosen to ditch virtually any hint of enjoyment for a dreamy solemnity. Using her latest single “Fold The Cloth” as an example, not unlike Phantom Power-era Super Furry Animals or her muse Gruff Rhys’ solo record Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, you’d be hard pressed to find much else around where sentiment and sincerity ride shotgun so assuredly. Like folk fermented and bottled for those to swig on high grounds at lo-fi altitudes – as her accompanying music video attests – this time around she sounds more personal than ever before, and all the better for it. Turning out moods on tracks like “Greta” and “Julia” in place of potentially easier pop hooks, in an accent I pray will catch among those more accustomed to pop perfection. As an album it’s contemplative and lazy-like, but so well-traveled you can’t help but fall for it. With organs and keyboard added sparingly, for gentle effect.
After one listen you’ll no doubt decide whether this is your kind of album. But if you choose to return, it’s precisely in those moments that you’ll uncover something special. Even without all of those aforementioned influences and overlooking some moments of slight emptiness (“The Man I Wanted”), CYRK still feels like one of those rare records that serves as an honest detour from the mores of ‘everything.’ There are no sexy smiles, slick labels or even straight roads to be found here. From the excellent “Puts Me To Work,” styled in a similar fashion to one of her best singles, “Shoeing The Bones,” to the undoubted highlight and two-pronged attack of “Ploughing Out” (Parts 1 and 2) Le Bon gives herself an imposing platform from which to exhibit her unfussy songwriting, and ultimately close a collection from where there is little escaping her romantic misfortune. Or, perhaps more fittingly, her melodic chronicling of said misfortune. In the same way the world took to the likes of Joanna Newsom or Neko Case, there’s something here that honest and that peculiar, it really is that intriguing. A new album from a new artist, with an old sound newly restored, think of this as a letter of recommendation to you, dear America.