Cate Le Bon - Mug Museum

California-recorded third album from Wales' answer to Nico pulls in two directions

She’s one of the crown jewels of the contemporary Welsh indie scene, but this third album from the majestic Cate Le Bon feels strangely unsatisfying in comparison to its predecessors. There’s something in the tone of it which suggests it’s being pulled in a couple of directions at once, at the same time being a lo-fi, low-key folk-pop offering in a very contemporary sense, and a stab at the epic, timeless sweep of everyone from Nico in her sonorous, fragile Velvet Underground days to Sandy Denny and her ethereal folk style.

Such a combination sounds great on paper, although the sense is that maybe Le Bon should have jumped in one direction or the other throughout this California-recorded offering. Her vocal on the opening ‘I Can’t Help You’ is really lovely, particularly with a layer of reverb on top of it, but the guitar line running alongside sounds tinny and somehow frivolous. There’s a similar sense on the halting ‘Are You With Me Now’, while ‘Duke’ thankfully pushes her vocals further up in the mix, and it’s all the better for it.

A similar tension persists throughout the album, with the quality and drama of Le Bon’s voice never quite being served by the music. One can only imagine how the riot grrl prowl ‘Wild’ or the Hammond-led garage rush of ‘Sisters’ might sound on the live stage, but hopefully more expansive and attention grabbing than here. Yet a below-par Le Bon is still an artist worth paying attention to, and those points which do bring her voice and music into synchronicity – including the Perfume Genius duet ‘I Think I Knew’ and the delicate psychedelia of ‘Cuckoo Through the Walls’ – offer a power and a crystallised femininity in keeping with the record’s lightly-themed tribute to her late grandmother and the women in the singer’s family line.

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