BEST OF 2013: 7. Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum

Recorded in Los Angeles but retaining plenty of Welsh spirit with Sweet Baboo and H Hawkline forming part of her band, ‘Mug Museum’ is the album that should install Cate Le Bon in the heads and hearts of the musically and emotionally literate. It is a diverting and stirring album which can hold you captive for days on end. ‘I wrote the majority of the record in the home country but a few songs were finished out here in the run up to recording’ said Le Bon in the press release that accompanied the album. ‘I’m sure Los Angeles has bled into the recordings somehow but exactly how I do not know.’ While there is something of an eternal haze perhaps referencing the LA link to some of these songs, it still sounds very much like a Cate Le Bon record in the very best possible sense. Beautiful, shimmering songs that are timeless yet vital, fresh but brilliantly familiar.

It has been wonderful to see the positive coverage that ‘Mug Museum’ has garnered, including an appearance on the cover of the newly revitalised and really rather good NME. It’s not just the initiated now, it’s anyone with functioning ears and a heart. ‘I Can’t Help You’ chimes and jangles like ‘Marquee Moon’ at 45rpm, confirming that however wonderful ‘Cyrk’ and ‘Cyrk II’ were – and they were – this another step up from a wonderfully inventive artist. ‘Are You With Me Now?’ lollops arrestingly, perfectly capturing Le Bon’s remarkable dexterity as a singer The backing vocals near the three minute mark are utterly beautiful and cap one of the record’s finest songs off in style. Quirkily vintage piano clarinet touches on the closing title track add decoration to a song which seems wearily but wilfully lost, drifting in and out of sense but offering up the thought “I forget the detail, but remember the warmth.” Much has been said about how distinctive Le Bon’s voice is, but it should be emphasised, quite simply, how utterly magnificent it is too.

The thunderous chug to the bass on ‘No God’ has a certain late seventies alt-rock majesty to it, but the folkier melodies remain at play across the top. ‘Mug Museum’ certainly has a vintage folk feel at times, but the fact that this music doesn’t quite fit any particular box all that neatly is part of its appeal. There is an overarching warmth to her delivery that transcends the meaning of the words on occasion, giving the songs an emotional heft that offers quite sincere solace during darker times. In the same way I might reach for ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ or ‘Sea Change’ because I want an all-consuming listen, I now seek out this singular album. The magically delicate interplay with Perfume Genius on ‘I Think I Knew’, for example, with heartache at its core is an inspired collaboration, pairing two warmly emotive voices to devastating effect.

‘Cuckoo Through The Walls’ disintegrates somewhat disturbingly and I have a fond memory of flicking through the vinyl racks of Cardiff’s premier destination – Spillers Records – as this played, the stereo separation across the speakers in the shop only adding to the curious atmosphere. It was they who first introduced me to Le Bon’s work, persuading me to pick up her self-released 2007 single ‘No One Can Drag Me Down’ which still gets keenly played to this day. If you’ve never heard it, some nefarious type has uploaded it here. The journey from there to here has been joyous, with each release a clearly discernible leap from the last. By the time 2012’s ‘Cyrk’ came into view, it was pretty obvious that the days of being a best kept secret sort of artist were over. Where that album faded in with ‘Falcon Eyed’, as if we were simply dipping in, the big difference with ‘Mug Museum’ is the sense of poise. This album stands tall, ready for the world to take it in.

Not quite ‘Just Played’ but nearly

Rain pours, Harriet Wheeler gently soothes the soul and the need for a jumper gradually creeps up on you. A good day, methinks. It’s strange to be mulling over the previous ten years of music, continuing to listen to a fair old pile of new stuff and already listening to some of the wondrous stuff that awaits in 2010. The Just Played Albums of the Decade feature will begin shortly and I have every hope that it’ll be at least quite good. The list is close to finished but, simultaneously, subject to a great deal of change. The end of year list is also coming together alongside the larger venture, but its progress is repeatedly stalled by the number of ‘late greats’ entering the fray.

In the last few weeks I’ve had my first listens to recent albums by Norah Jones, Hidden Cameras, Cate Le Bon, Cerys Matthews, Molina and Johnson, Mumford & Sons, Emmy The Great and Julian Casablancas. In addition, Noah And The Whale’s album got its first detailed listen and turned out to be really rather good while Monsters Of Folk, The xx, Cheryl Cole and Kings Of Convenience were explored in more detail. There have been so many fantastic records this year that it’s hard to know where to start.

Still, I’ll have a go. If the Cerys Matthews album was credited to Duffy instead, it’d be a chart-shagging behemoth of a record. As it is, it’ll sell a few thousand and turn up for £3 in Fopp within six months. Wearing its influences on its sleeve, ‘Don’t Look Down’ is a soulful set of beautifully constructed pop songs. It’s hard to believe that the same person was responsible for ‘The Balled Of Tom Jones’, in conjunction with Space.

The Norah Jones album is being touted as the ‘Norah Jones album for people who don’t like Norah Jones albums’. That’s clearly spurious bollocks, because if you like this then you do and, oh well, nevermind, eh? Still, it’s very, very good and more than a little noisier than her previous offerings. I always quite liked her somewhat sneered at laid back jazzy early albums but this is definitely her strongest offering to date. Far more bluesy and benefiting from the presence of some of those responsible for Tom Waits’ ‘Mule Variations’. Not Tom Waits though, I should add. It’s already available via the little green blob, so click the image below and enjoy.

Norah 

The cryptically named Molina and Johnson are a double act comprising of Jason Molina and Will Johnson. Molina will likely be familiar to you as the man behind the always enchanting Magnolia Electric Co and, having already provided one of the better album of the year with that band’s ‘Josephine’, has now managed to turn in a second belter before the year is out. Far more sparse than the aforementioned, ‘Josephine’, this is a bleakly beautiful collection of melancholic music boosted by deft and subtle playing. Wait till it’s dark, grab a cup of something warm and sit by the window looking at the stars and hit play.

molina-johnson

My new found love of Cate Le Bon came about as a result of a happy coincidence. Having heard her named mentioned in a few places and seen her profiled in a couple of magazines I knew of her, without knowing what she actually sounded like. I found myself thumbing through the singles in Spillers the other week and happened upon her self-released 7”, ‘No One Can Drag Me Down’, from a couple of years back. It sat in the bag for a few days until I finally dusted it down and gave it a go. Four play of each side later I was hooked. I can’t actually remember the last single that I gave instant repeated play to and this one truly deserves it. Click here and you can download both sides of that single for absolutely nothing. I will be absolutely amazed if you’re not glad to have done so. That might well lead you to her recently released debut album which doesn’t sound quite as Coral-y as that particular single but is one of the most charmingly simple collection of folky songs I’ve heard all year. It is, inevitably, available on Spotify.

cate

David McAlmont has set about adding lyrics to a number of pieces by genius composer (and Divine Comedy inspiration) Michael Nyman. It probably shouldn’t work but, providing you’re a fan on McAlmont’s voice in the first place, it’s remarkably successful. I’m only the first couple of listens in at this stage but I’m strangely hooked. In the same way that Neil Hannon adding vocals to Yann Tiersen’s ‘Les Jours Tristes’ should have been a bit of a balls up but really, truly wasn’t, McAlmont’s mellifluous vocals are a perfect fit for the dramatic endeavours of Nyman and I suspect this one has the capacity to become a firm favourite before too long. Let Spotify be your guide:

mcalmont nyman(and should you wish to test my theory, here’s ‘Les Jours Tristes’ without Neil and then with – both are rather nice, eh?)

I was never hugely fond of the early sound of Idlewild. They always struck me a bit too much energy and noise and not quite enough in the tunes department. I reviewed their 2005 album, ‘Warnings/Promises’, and remember quite liking it and wondering if things had changed. A recent purchase of their best of for £3 confirmed that I’d perhaps been a little hard on the increasingly early-REM aping Scots. Their latest album, ‘Post Electric Blues’, has lifted them higher in my affections and with good reason: it’s a bloody good collection of songs. At times poppier than they’ve been in the past, this album is probably far too late to put their star back in the ascendancy but I suspect its quality will surprise you if you have them chalked up as indie also-rans who never quite delivered. It may have taken them a while, but they’ve very much turned up with the goods. (Plus, there’s a lovely vinyl pressing on the Newport based Diverse Vinyl label)

idlewild

For those who follow my Twitter postings, Ellie Goulding should not be an unfamiliar name. She is responsible for one of the THE pop songs of 2009, ‘Under The Sheets’. With unashamedly enormous beats all over the place and a quirky vocal it pummels along for almost four minutes, doing everything great pop music should: slowly building to euphoria, staying just the right side of annoyingly repetitive, going a little bit dreamy around the two and a half minute mark before gradually returning to the enormous sound of the chorus. Oh yes, my music loving brethren, this is what it’s all about. You might, of course, think it’s bobbins. But I suspect that would make you wrong. (The b-side, ‘Fighter Plane’ is also rather good)

elliecover

On the subject of top notch pop, if you’ve not heard Jamie from The xx’s version of Florence’s cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ then you should probably do something about that. Don’t be put off by the arse-shreddingly mediocre Florence reading, this remix is wonderful, entirely in keeping with The xx’s own fabulous debut album. 

I shall conclude by briefly gloating about some of the wonderful new music I’ve been listening to over the last couple of weeks. The first month of 2010 will deliver both a new Tindersticks album and SupergrassGaz and Danny doing a covers album as The Hot Rats. I spoke to the latter band for a ‘New for 2010’ piece and they are, quite rightly, rather proud of the twelve reinterpretations they’ve opted for. Their take on ‘Love Is The Drug’, ‘Love Cats’ and, most notably, ‘Fight For Your Right’ have been keeping me thoroughly entertained for a little while now and any Supergrass fans can sit back in anticipation of a genuinely wonderful collection of songs. Some versions are more conventional than others but all are delivered with gusto and style. Not all covers albums have to be ‘Swing When You’re Winning’, ‘Allow Us To Be Frank’ or ‘Studio 150’. This one is much more of a ‘Pin Ups’.

As for the new Tindersticks album, ‘Falling Down A Mountain’, it only arrived yesterday and I’m still a little bit too giddy to be particularly objective about it but suffice to say it’s another quality addition to a back catalogue that barely puts a foot wrong. It’s a little rougher round the edges than 2008’s ‘The Hungry Saw’ and it’s musically less restrained than that, nevertheless really rather beautiful, previous record. There are occasional hints of the more claustrophobic production sound of ‘Curtains’ and ‘The Second Tindersticks album’ on a couple of tracks, while closer ‘Piano Music’ is an epic instrumental piece which certainly evokes times gone by.