“Companion piece” projects culled from a previous album’s recording sessions should prompt low expectations. With few exceptions, the ready-made follow-up pales in comparison to the first release, and, no matter how artists may frame selection in terms of vibe rather than quality, it’s only the resolute few who have the restraint to actually withhold their strongest material for the sake of a good fit. That said, I buy Cate Le Bon’s claim that the five stark, melancholy songs on this EP were held back from their more diverse parent album, Cyrk, on tonal grounds. Yet Cyrk II is still a chore of a listen.
Le Bon’s accented English and deep, half-chanted vocal approach have always made Nico a convenient comparison point. Before Cyrk II, though, the Welsh singer-songwriter never sounded quite so content to capitalize on her intrinsic Velvetiness nor did she ever rely so flagrantly on Velvets-by-way-of-Pavement moves to get her songs across. Where her influences achieve uncanny alchemy in fusing classic songwriting and shambolic performance up front, Le Bon seems determined to retroactively imbue her cryptic lyrics and simple compositions with a borrowed mystique of inspired amateurism. The thin and fuzzed-out guitar leads bending into obvious dissonant notes at every turn, solos flailing out of key in search of the next note, and drums bashing away slightly behind the beat sound particularly contrived in light of the unobtrusive performances on Cyrk, which flirted with garage-rock amateurism, but never so gracelessly or desparately. As if to draw further attention to the arty distress, the production is wrung dry of reverb; it’s as if you’re mere feet away from a band not doing justice to a batch of good, if unremarkable, Cate Le Bon songs.