Album reviews: Cate Le Bon | Bastille | Animal Collective | Los Bitchos
Created during lockdown, Cate Le Bon’s sixth album is spare but alluring, the songs simultaneously soothing and unsettling, writes Fiona Shepherd
Cate Le Bon: Pompeii (Mexican Summer) ****
Bastille: Give Me the Future (EMI) **
Animal Collective: Time Skiffs (Domino) ****
Los Bitchos: Let the Festivities Begin! (Drag City) ****
Whether drawing inspiration from her home in the Mojave desert or producing the most recent John Grant album in Iceland, there is an otherworldly quality to Cate Le Bon’s musical output. Ironically, during the strictest lockdown days, she found herself back in her former stomping ground of Cardiff, isolated and untethered in familiar, prosaic surroundings, from where she created her spare yet alluring sixth album.
Pompeii is almost Spartan in its conception. Le Bon sought not comfort in creation but to marshal the chaos of the situation. There is a lithe discipline to these simultaneously soothing and unsettling songs, which were composed mainly on bass guitar, with uncluttered arrangements as striking and stylish as a duochrome palette.
Le Bon plays most of the instruments herself, initially working alone or with producer Samur Khouja in a process of deconstruction and reconstruction which foregrounds her cool alto vocals. Le Bon has a distinctive tone and delivery, like a softer Nico, or an altogether less intimidating Grace Jones. Periodically, she leaps into a higher register, relinquishing control.
Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa provides drums and Le Bon’s longtime collaborator Stephen “Sweet Baboo” Black supplies the sonorous saxophone on opening track Dirt on the Bed. From this intriguing austerity, she moves on to the softer contours of Moderation, which is practically a new wave pop tune with plangent bass, rich, ringing guitar chords, fluttering vocals and querulous sax.
The cool prowl of French Boys seemingly beams in from 1982 and retro-futurist guitar bursts garnish the satisfying dance of Remembering Me, which glides gracefully from economic call-and-response to legato incantations with the elan of a Kate Bush production. Running Away is another standout with its supple bass patterns, Bowiesque sax, burnished acid guitar and Le Bon’s hypnotic vocals, while the laidback, languorous title track and the wistful tone of closing track Wheel are about as close as Le Bon comes to conventional craft in this elegant and mysterious odyssey.
From Le Bon’s subtle taste sensations to the easy palatabllity of the latest Bastille album which manages to lodge some hooks in the brain while drifting in one ear and out the other. Give Me the Future takes the highs and lows of living in a technological age as its broadbrush theme, sprinkling sci-fi references across its undemanding electro pop songs.
Taster single Distorted Light Beam is as strong an advert as they can muster. Its slick trancey pop with retro disco trimmings could have fallen off the back of the latest Weeknd album. The bouncy escapism of Thelma & Louise and hands-in-the-air Shut Off the Lights are easy daytime radio confections. The low-slung R&B pop of No Bad Days flirts with autotuned vocal riffing, while there is a throwback whiff of Level 42 on the 80s funk pop track Stay Awake. Actor/rapper Riz Ahmed pops up halfway through with a spoken word piece called Promises, interrupting the inoffensive flow.
Cult Baltimore band Animal Collective offer a more colourful canvas of easy drifting listening on their latest album. Time Skiffs is a relatively straightforward, song-based collection of charming, wiggy indie pop with airy harmonies. However, much like Le Bon, there is a strange alchemy at play and lyrical subject matter, when apparent, is fairly esoteric, ranging from legendary Christian king Prester John to enigmatic pop composer Scott Walker.
With members hailing from Australia, Uruguay, Sweden and the UK, London-based instrumental four-piece Los Bitchos use their international credentials to twist psych and surf rock traditions. Their Alex Kapranos-produced debut Let the Festivities Begin! chimes as readily as it twangs, replaces fuzztone with trebly frequencies and brings Afrobeat rhythms, Latino sashay, Tuareg rock and Turkish tunes to the carefree party.
Clara/Robert/Johannes: Lyrical Echoes (Analekta) ****
There’s a lot to be gained from a recording project that addresses a theme without the live practical restrictions on genre. This is the second in the Canadian National Arts Centre Orchestra’s four-part exploration of the triangular relationship between Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, and as such pairs the second symphonies of Robert and Johannes with Lieder by Clara. The latter are idyllic in their own right, mostly from Op 12 & 13 evoking love and nature, and performed with sensitivity and passion by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and pianist Liz Upchurch. They are billed as “lyrical echoes” to the orchestral symphonies, a hypothesis powerfully expounded in conductor Alexander Shelley’s affectionate vision. There is no lack of robustness in the Schumann symphony, nor does the Brahms lack pungency. But it’s the lyricism and thoughtfulness of these interpretations, and Shelley’s overarching command of the big picture, that distinguish them. Ken Walton
Oscar Peterson: A Time for Love: Live in Helsinki 1987 (Mack Avenue) *****
Capturing a sublime jazz moment in 1987, this double album portrays the legendary pianist, who died in 2007, in glorious form on the final night of a tour which had taken his quartet – drummer Martin Drew, bassist Dave Young and renowned guitarist Joe Pass – from South America to Europe. While Peterson is undoubtedly leader here, he and Pass enjoy a frequently complementary relationship, the guitarist threading his way nimbly through the snappy rush of Sushi, expounding gentle solo musings on Wish Upon a Star, or racing neck and neck with Petersen in the dynamic Salute to Bach. Peterson’s rolling tenderness in Love Ballade contrasts with an Ellington Medley which builds up a head of steam with A Train and tumbles into full-blown stride for C-Jam Blues, and the keyboard hurricane of the closing Blues Etude. No wonder the audience erupts ecstatically. Jim Gilchrist
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