[18 June 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
Even if being eccentric and idiosyncratic has become the norm for talented women singer-songwriters, Cate Le Bon is still probably too weird, too spooky, and too subtle for mass consumption. Without that something intangible that has helped an outsider like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall appeal to more casual listeners, Le Bon’s brand of quirkiness is a hard sell—after all, her debut release was a collection of tunes sung in Welsh and an earlier (failed) attempt at an album was something called Pet Deaths. Relying more on her understated charms and slow-burning intensity than on charisma, Le Bon finds herself on folk’s bohemian outskirts. And she’s probably better off for it. While Me Oh My isn’t exactly an album that invites its listener to get comfortable, its dark imagination and unnerving tones grab your attention by keeping you on edge.
In that sense, Le Bon makes her case to join a lineage of art-scarred outcasts that includes the likes of Kristin Hersh, later-era P.J. Harvey, and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. In particular, it’s one of the originators of this tradition, Nico, who’s most often namechecked as a point of reference for Le Bon, thanks to her eerily accented voice and the austere vibe of her music. Like these forerunners and contemporaries, Le Bon, at her best, is able to evoke wonder in desolation and weirdness in the mundane on Me Oh My. The after-hours feel of “Sad Sad Feet” definitely recalls the Velvet Underground, but mostly the post-Nico third album, with its quiet, strummy instrumentation and sparse production. Matching the downcast introspection of the music, the song’s foreboding lyrics offer a window into the melancholic soul of the album as a whole, as Le Bon sings haunting lines like, “I’ll go blind to save you / Not go looking to take it back / It’s just, baby, I’m headed for the black”, without flinching. Severe but pretty, the pastoral tune “It’s Not the End” is reminiscent of Linda Thompson’s folk noir narratives, as striking for its sinister undertone as it is for finding a bit of redemption in persevering.
More viscerally pleasing are the moments when Le Bon conjures up some shifts in tone and a slight lifting of spirits, adding just enough sonic texture to liven things up. What starts out as gloom-and-doom folk on the title track gets broken up by a touch of squishy synths, which provides some welcome contrast to the mix. There and on the harrowing “Terror of the Man”, it would be apt to describe Le Bon’s music as a more measured, less bombastic version of St. Vincent. The resemblance is even stronger on “Burn Until the End”, which recalls St. Vincent’s bizarro pop in its composition and dynamics, dialing up its simmering energy ever so slowly only to unleash an unexpected crescendo where Le Bon shows off her own guitar playing chops.
It’s just that Me Oh My could use some more changes in pace and mood like these to make it a more approachable and fully engaging listen. By the second half of the album, Me Oh My‘s dark atmospherics and morbid lyrics (“If I could die / We could get so far away”) become too heavy and overbearing, even when there’s never a discernable drop in the quality of the music. The piercing intensity of Le Bon’s music takes its toll after a while, so while some of the closing numbers like “Digging Song” and “Out to Sea” have interesting elements to them, they tend to fade in and out of consciousness.
As Le Bon continues to develop as an artist, it’s more than likely she’ll expand her horizons beyond the overcast aesthetic of Me Oh My. Le Bon herself offers some hints as to how she might move out of Me Oh My‘s discomfort zone when she takes Pavement’s Wowee Zowee as her inspiration on the almost jangly “Eyes So Bright”. Although it’s probably not enough to take Le Bon from the indie hinterlands to the promised land, it’s at least a sign that there are some new directions Le Bon can explore to find more room to grow.