When Cate Le Bon announced earlier this year that she was packing up her red dragon bindle and forsaking the magical valleys of Ye Olde “Land of Our Fathers” (i.e. Wales) for the exorbitant glamour and glitz of sunny Los Angeles, it was hard not to sigh with weary resignation. Another rising soul swallowed whole by La La Land soon to reappear as another plastic fantastic puppet on parade, likely botoxed up with glow-in-the-dark chompers, lipsynching to some horrific EDM/folk hybrid whilst flogging an E! reality atrocity and a perfume range. But hurrah and ring-a-ding-ding as the endearingly titled Mug Museum finds the bilingual folkstress still bewitchingly rich and strange.
If anything, Le Bon’s third record unfolds like a natural progression of the journey so far rather than a fast-track limo to the stars. Just as the lonely, wistful folk of 2009’s Me Oh My (AKA Pet Deaths) led to the more band-oriented but still lovably scruffy art rock of last year’s Cryk, Mug Museum is a more elaborate, confident record. New producer Noah Georgeson (previously the go-to-guy for fellow bohemians Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart) brings in a more dynamically complex and decidedly funkier tone, but it’s still the basement tapes of outsiders, beatniks, poets, misfits, delinquents, artists. Songs they never play on the radio — although you wish they would. The ghosts that haunt the halls of Mug Museum are the ’70s pop art pantheon of Television, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and naturellement Nico, to whom Le Bon’s coolly hypnotic vocals will eternally be compared.
First Museum piece “I Can’t Help You” swaggers toward CBGB’s with Tom Verlaine-esque wandering guitar flutter and wide-eyed, straight-talking Patti Smith poetry. “I took a backseat in my heart and laid low,” sighs Le Bon with foppish, if slightly demented, wonder. “I can’t help you! / Can’t help you!,” it floats dizzily, across a hammering one-finger piano riff. “Are You With Me Now?” and “Duke” both blow loving kisses to the late Lou Reed circa Transformer. The former is all warm acoustic strum, lightheaded and dreamy in rapturous sunshine. It even tips a cheeky wink to another Welsh wanderer, the ‘Sex Panther’ himself: Sir Tom of Jones. “Duke”, meanwhile, hustles in “Vicious” bass grooves, fluttering butterfly melodies, and Le Bon amusingly screaming “Heeeeerrrrree! Heeerrre!!” as if calling an imaginary dog home. Groove is most certainly in the art, and “No God” is dozily funkier still. It’s a low rider in a ‘Incense, bell bottoms, kaftans, and hey man, stay away from the brown acid’ sort of way. “When leading lambs lose track / Hands hold me back,” exhales CLB as the floor starts to wobble and melt like Jello on springs. A duet with Perfume Genius, “I Think I Knew” showcases the pride exhibit. The song is a parting folk-noir slowdance between heavy hearts laden with history while shimmering, spectral synths flicker and sparkle above. Ms Le Bon and Mr Genius pine and lament, mournful and vulnerable, evoking the glamorous grit of Gram and Emmylou. “What did you want?” he asks dolefully; “everything,” she replies, obviously.
The second half of Mug brings colder, stranger spectacles. “Wild” is the storm after the calm, with a ‘Banshee bonkers on bathsalts’ rattle, demented Ray Manzarek-esque organ chops, and Le Bon rambling about “knitted scarves” and “frogs” before bounding off the walls in a straitjacket shrieking “WIIILD! WILLLD! WIIIILD!” It’s at this point that a kindly but very naked Native-American appears and leads you into the desert. The Beatles-referencing “Sisters” is all intense ‘Grace Slick-versus-Syd Barrett’ stares, motorik pogo pulse, and kaleidoscopic keys. “And if the lane stops short / I won’t die / I’m a sister! Aah wooo!” sings Le Bon precariously from what one imagines to be a rooftop. The result is fantically infectious but slightly loopy. Ditto the spiraling “Mirror Me”, which sounds like something from a bizarro ’70s kids’ TV show, featuring spooksome Casio organs, creepshow heartbeat bass, and a terminally insane trumpet player being chased from the sanitorium by the janitor of lunacy. Mug Museum holds a collection easy to admire, but sometimes you’ll disengage and drift away, pondering “Why am I here? Who are these strange people and where is my mommy?”
But just when you start to feel a little alienated among the artifacts and slipping through a K-hole, Mug Museum breaks the glass and reaches out. The smoldering “Cuckoo Through The Walls” is human, warm, and intimate in equal measure. It’s a tender trap, “the sounds of symphonies,” a sadness shared behind net curtains. “She did not use the door / She did not leave the table,” it weeps, before warning “Never leave the house” like Willard crawling back to the boat in Apocalypse Now. Pounding drums, carnival carousel keys, and scratchy sandpaper guitars whip a pretty hurricane. We exit this Museum, though not through the gift shop but with the ghostly titular track, which Le Bon sings from a creaky rocking chair with piano and cobweb accompaniment. Her voice drains, “In my mug museum / I grow / Company from echoes / In my walls” and the dusty Museum door closes slowly, gently.
The old curiosity shop that is Cate Le Bon’s Mug Museum is a wonderfully strange place. Step beyond its illuminated hallways of “watermelon dreams,” “lambs,” and “felt furniture” and there’s a Godless valley of icy, death-stained “self-sabotage” and “sickly dogs” where “You are half hidden / Until the arms close.” If at times it feels akin to a parallel world kept behind glass, touching from a distance, it’s a soundscape alive with enchanting melody and evocative poetry. Mug Museum won’t open its doors for everyone, but then that’s part of its charm.