CATE LE BON
Mug Museum (Witchita)
Time has a way of changing your frame of reference.
If someone told you, for example, that Cate Le Bon sounds an awful lot like Nico, you might hear the name Neko instead. In 2013, you can be forgiven for a homophonic mistake like that.
But Le Bon is reaching back considerably farther on Mug Museum, a contemporary collection that owes so much to the Velvet Underground & Nico it ought to have Andy Warhol’s banana on the cover.
“Are You With Me Now?” is especially familiar and especially effective, with dueling guitars strumming along at an easy pace as Le Bon delivers dark news with hope in her fragile voice: “It’s not impossible, it’s not unfathomable, it’s not unusual, baby, to feel the shadow and cry.”
You know who would sound good sing-talking lyrics like that? Lou Reed, that’s who.
Cate Le Bon isn’t Nico, of course. The latter was German. The former hails from Wales, part of the great Welsh rock invasion that features The Joy Formidable, Los Campesinos! and whatever Gene Loves Jezebel is up to these days.
Also from Wales? John Cale.
Le Bon mined this same, late ‘60s ground on her second album, 2012’s “Cyrk,” and it paid off splendidly with “Puts Me to Work,” one of best songs of the year.
Mug Museum starts with equal strength, reeling off three instantly inviting tracks: “I Can’t Help You,” the aforementioned “Are You With Me Now?” and “Duke.”
But this proves to be the high point. After “I Think I Knew,” a delicate duet with Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius, the album gets lost in a fog of organs and Le Bon’s own mannered vocals.
It’s not her fault, really. It’s the source material. Though Nico is great for a song or two at a time, her albums aren’t easy to listen to in one sitting, either.
At least Mug Museum ends well, thanks to a balladic title track so gorgeously recorded you can hear every creak of Le Bon’s piano bench, even over the honk of clarinets.
Luckily, this is not the late ‘60s. Today we can easily click our way through our favorite songs on an album, and we never have to listen to more nostalgia than we can stand. HENRY BREAN
Cupid Deluxe (Domino)
Dev Hynes has had a few false starts in finding a signature sound over the last decade. In 2004, the Brit musician tried on spastic dance-punk with the terribly named Test Icicles. In 2007, he donned a folkie hat, released a few decent albums as Lightspeed Champion and toured with Bright Eyes. But his knack for pure pop melody and snapping production led to songwriting and producing gigs for other artists like Florence & The Machine, Solange, and Sky Ferreira.
He’s now found his true sound releasing synth-pop albums as Blood Orange.
Hynes’s 2011 debut under the moniker explored electro-pop and chillwave flourishes, but the variety of sounds couldn’t make up for a lack of catchy songs. The multi-instrumentalist has kept those sounds, and augmented them with heaping doses of all-over-the-place sonic ideas, killer hooks and guest collaborators to create a sprawling and more confident followup album. Smooth R&B a la ‘90s New Jack Swing, modern hip-hop, ‘80s sax solos and drum machines, ‘70s disco jams — there’s room for all of them on the masterly Cupid Deluxe.
Set against little more than a bass line and keyboard washes, the voices of Hynes and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek carry the melodic weight of opener “Charmakay.” The mid-tempo track starts things off slowly. By the time of disco-guitar groove “Uncle Ace,” Hynes has ratcheted up the BPMs, as well as the weirdness (the outro bizarrely recalls the synth line of Taco’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”).
The rap producer Clams Casino adds a skittering, light background to “No Right Thing,” a marked departure from his typically dark and foreboding instrumentals, and Dirty Projectors’ Davdi Longstreth contributed a more feeling vocal to the track than he has to any song on his own band’s albums.
But for all the collaborations, Hynes does the heavy lifting here. In addition to writing and producing, he plays guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and synthesizers. More than anything, Hynes work as Blood Orange picks up the mantle of mid-period Prince: sultry grooves, expert playing, creative songwriting, pop hooks and intuitive production all in one deluxe package. MIKE KALIL