For artists who wear their influences on their sleeve like Cate le Bon, sometimes the most difficult feat can be rising above. Her chilly, erudite voice does recall memories of Nico and the Velvet Underground, with le Bon’s Welsh accent carrying some real beauty, while still keeping a safe distance; at her museum, please remember to stay behind the velvet rope, and refrain from touching the exhibits. Even if you may already own them, deep in your record collection.
The singer’s third release, Mug Museum, gets excellent mileage from its influences. In particular, it evokes the controlled pace and songwriting of the Velvets, and sharp jangles of repetitious guitar parts that bring to mind the early tight riffs of Television’s Marquee Moon. Dabs of organ and piano soak into the mix, with a tight and simplified rhythm section staying out of the way of le Bon’s melodies, themselves often doubled by guitarist H. Hawkline.
It gets off to a blazing start, as the first two tracks practically explode with catchiness and energy. “I Can’t Help You” is a fast ride, sped along by Hawkline’s main guitar part and the dark lyrics.
This is quickly followed up by more jumpy guitar on “Are You with Me Now?” and a similar bag of tricks; the stutter step of the chorus is amazingly simple yet effective, as if designed by an Ikea engineer.
Recorded in Los Angeles, the album features stellar production from Noah Georgeson, already known for mining a deep vintage closet as producer and guitarist for Devendra Banhart. Georgeson adds a tape-warbled sheen that almost singlehandedly drags the entire album out of this era and far back into the mid-60s, bringing to mind the similar vintage-chic production of 2013’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic from fellow LA transplants Foxygen.
The track “Wild” is also a standout, with a restless energy that adds driving force to the eerie elements of le Bon’s dynamic. It’s also just plain fun to hear her trying to yell the chorus with her Welsh inflections. The next track, “Sisters,” keeps the energy going, with a silly synth flying around the track as if it got lost on the way to a Man Man show.
Keeping a safe distance is not always great, particularly with some fading on the second half of the record. The dragging, Victorian-splashed “I Think I Knew” never fully materializes. “Cuckoo Through the Walls” plods along uneventfully for the first four minutes, with only an idiosyncratic guitar noise passage saving it toward the end. Mug Museum ends with the title track, a quiet piano ballad that suffers from a lack of much to say.
Mostly, Cate le Bon achieves a rare feat with this latest release, finding a way of successfully transposing the past without depending too totally on the cannibalization of her influences. Like a piece of Ikea furniture, Mug Museum comes together quickly – and is beautiful in an efficient, ‘mod’ manner – even if it may not withstand long-term, heavy use.