Close your eyes, pour a strong drink, light up, and it’s monochrome New York, 1968 – the people look serious, the future is bleak – Cate Le Bon makes records that send the listener, without any apology or compromise, back to the height of Warhol’s Factory, almost to the moment when Cale’s cello first rubbed up against Reed’s rhythms. If Le Bon’s music can be accused of always looking back, then at least it looks back to one of the most important passages of rock music, and evokes bands to which everyone is indebted – indeed, bands everyone wanted to sound like. But of course the point here is that Le Bon’s music does not simply look back – it lurches into semi-familiar places, places you suspect may be a future, if not the future, of songwriting.
Le Bon’s previous records have indulged in varying degrees of accessibility, although each of them have their own array of charms for anybody interested in the art of song-building. This latest record, a collaboration with perhaps an unlikely creature – an artist who seems on this evidence to fit Le Bon’s own sensibilities and talents like a slowly adorned black leather glove – is arguably the least friendly of any of them. It creaks and growls, and jumps up with some spoken word, some Syd Barret-esque psyche melancholy, the usual jab of the Velvets and a wink from Nico (particularly now, Marble Index Nico); it never settles, never gives you that catchy tune you may be accustomed to by now, which have the habit of prickling up from Le Bon albums. But this is a compelling record nevertheless, with a dark touch that has you wondering rather than asserting, as to whether much of this is meant in jest. And that was the allure of much of Warhol’s Factory in the first place, wasn’t it?
But, as mentioned and moved on from, this is not just a Cate Le Bon record – it is the first outing for a new collaborative project, DRINKS, with former L.A. hardcore frontman and member of The Fall, Tim Pressley. Pressley fits in so well with Le Bon’s sound, that he often sounds more like a guest than a collaborator, although he is more authoritative on tracks such as ‘Laying Down Rock’, an opening track straight out of the Velvet’s Camberwick Green locker. Further in, the waters muddy further, and we’re touching on more New York sounds – Pressley obviously has a thing for Richard Hell – but we’re also running through British sounds that spilled out of that CBGBs sweat – The Slits and the aforementioned touring circus of Mr Mark E. Smith. For the most, these complimentary influences form a solid whole – this sounds like an album, a coherent project, even as the blues scales disintegrate and the cymbals fall over. But still there is the distinct impression Le Bon is the driving force, the mystic in the middle of all the fuss. The title track, ‘Canon Mouth’ and the brilliant ‘Spilt the Beans’ sound like Le Bon at her most engaged, and while you won’t get euphoric moments that dominated the first side of Mug Museum (2013), and much of the fabulous Cyrk (2012), this is an album of caustic post-punk (and much pre-punk) deconstruction. It is quiet nihilism. A whispered dismantling in a hushed corner, of everything else that’s going on in the music business. And for all the influences worn on sleeves (barely a moment goes by when you’re not forced to think of Skip Spence, and then Jefferson Airplane, and then perhaps some Moldy Peaches, back to Moby Grape, a bit of the [non-Mancunian] Charlatans, the towering shadow of two of Wales’ greatest in John Cale and Young Marble Giants, and so on and so forth) this is an album of grin-inducing originality, a nail-bomb dreamscape that pulls in forty years of underground grunge rock and arthouse punk and spits it out from a solemn, pale face. As for Cate Le Bon, she continues to be one of Wales’ most interesting artists, and although this doesn’t feel like a major record, it certainly feels like a significant part of her emerging story.