Trauma beneath breezy tunes



Cate Le Bon

Mexican Summer

4 stars

Perhaps it is about doing something tactile with your hands. Or is it the routine, focus and discipline required? Yes, I am talking about the allure of carpentry here.

Actor Daniel Day-Lewis studied woodworking and apparently built a kitchen table for his role as a Scottish farmer in The Ballad Of Jack And Rose (2005). Jack White of indie rock band The White Stripes moonlights as an upholsterer who restored a 1960s-era couch for Sam Phillips Recording in 2016.

Now enter Cate Le Bon, the Welsh musician who is adept at taking apart and reconstituting song structures.

Burnt out from touring her fourth album, the acclaimed Crab Day, she decamped to a rented cottage in the Lake District of Cumbria, England, and threw herself into an intense, one-year course making furniture.

The retreat also produced her career’s most personal and, yes, most aerated songs. Written mostly alone on piano (though recorded in Joshua Tree, California, with co-producer Samur Khouja), they riff on themes of seclusion and self-examination, away from the madding crowd.

As a result, the music feels free, untethered and quizzical. They feel the air, take detours, but do not linger.

Still, the breeziness belies an unidentified trauma (allegedly a break-up) in the first track, Miami. “Decorate your own discord, Miami/Never be the same again, no way,” she promises in the opening lines, her voice unnervingly calm, while horns and drums alternate and braid, like joinery.

The vibe invokes the languorous moments by, say, art-pop iconoclast Robert Wyatt, while her deadpan delivery is closer to that of Laetitia Sadier, the singer of avant-pop band Stereolab.

Heartache also shades the deceptively perky Daylight Matters, as Le Bon peruses the fallout over jazzy lounge riffs and proto-synths. “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you/But you’re not here,” she chants. “Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you/But you’ve gone.”

You espy glimpses, too, of her self-imposed exile, as she details “a day in the life/Arranging the chairs/And I’m never gonna live it again”.

A song such as Home To You waltzes like one of those retro-folk pastorals favoured by Scottish retro-folk act Belle And Sebastian, but its undertow can take you out.

“Home to you/Is a neighbourhood in the night kitchen/Home to you/Is atrocity in the town/Home to you/Is an atrocity in an impasse under hallway ceilings,” she rolls out a Rolodex of definitions for what home means, never mind its lullaby which casts a spell.

Family is very much on her mind in Mother’s Mother’s Magazines, possibly the most unexpected #MeToo anthem which also sounds like a Young Marble Giants art-punk missive with its staccato riffs and sax honks.

“Endless sport and riveted wives/You may aim high but lay low, low, low,” she pays tribute to her mother and her grandmother while calling out generations of gender inequality.

The chasm between loss and possession, dream and reality also informs Sad Nudes. “The more you feel, the more you have to lose,” she sings, the beats and keys shuffling and tripping over one another.

A horn toots and you hear a sigh.