By: Will Pinfold
Cate Le Bon | website | facebook | twitter | soundcloud |
Released on April 15, 2016 via Turnstile Music
Crab Day made me think of the poet Stevie Smith, and the surprising depth of feeling that childlike (rather than childish) imagery can evoke, even when the meaning behind it isn’t always clear. Like Smith’s writing, Crab Day is wayward, oddly intimate and apparently direct in its matter-of-factness, but at the same time, on closer analysis, not very revealing. Accessible rather than impenetrable or even ‘difficult’, it’s nevertheless an album that feels as tantalisingly alien-yet-familiar on the tenth listen as it does on the first.
The sound of Crab Day is fresh, clear and sparse, a minimalist version of the post-punk sound of Le Bon’s earlier work; stripped not only of clutter but of pop hooks, at its strangest the album is a kind of jerky Trout Mask Replica/early Fall version of Mug Museum. Although the songs are not without variety, the album’s most defining features (aside from Le Bon’s instantly recognisable voice) are punchy, metronomic drums, thin scrapings of angular guitar and almost comically parping sax. It’s the vocals that bring it all together though; Le Bon’s strongly accented, apparently emotionally detached singing style is as immediate yet unknowable as Nico, though with a wider range of expression.
Extraordinary as it is as an album, Crab Day is occasionally more impressive than it is likeable; but it starts brilliantly with the opening duo of ‘Crab Day’ and ‘Love Is Not Love’. The former is a scratchy, drily funky song with an oddly marching tempo that enhances the childlike feeling of the apparently nonsensical lyrics. ‘Love Is Not Love’, one of Le Bon’s finest songs, a woozy, swaying ballad of sorts, featuring the undeniable truth that ‘love is not love if it’s a coathanger’, a statement that is at first funny, then possibly disturbing in its associations. The fact that it isn’t clear what she means makes it all the more affecting. Thereafter, the album becomes a little less consistent in quality, with songs like ‘Wonderful’ (definitively ‘angular’ pop music) and ‘Find Me’ and ‘How Do You Know’ feeling just a bit too repetitive and teetering on the edge of being self-consciously surreal. Even then though, there are more pluses than minuses; the band’s apparently-ramshackle tightness impresses throughout and Le Bon’s vocals are always perfectly judged; switching seamlessly between near-spoken passages and the beautifully soaring folk singing of her earlier work.
Artists looking towards childhood and its almost-alien innocence of vision, whether in the visual arts, music or literature, have always had the same problem; how to maintain that childlike perspective and freshness of vision without falling into the traps of insubstantial whimsicality or excruciating tweeness. With Crab Day, Cate Le Bon just about manages it, despite treading a fine line with some of the lyrics to songs like ‘Wonderful’ and ‘I Was Born On The Wrong Day’.
Ultimately, though, the album leaves the listener with the feeling that it does all mean something, that there are hidden, adults depths behind Le Bon’s deadpan delivery and at the same time there are enough of those great moments when the songs break out of their jerky, repetitive arrangements and into beautiful melodies, as with the chorus of ‘Yellow Blinds, Cream Shadows – basically, enough good tunes – to make it all work. Intimate, enigmatic and unique, Crab Day is a haunted doll’s house of a record and one well worth exploring.