Of all the generic categories of music classification, “folk music” may be the most restrictive, at least in its use as a commercial term. Anyone familiar with Cate Le Bon knows her music decisively escapes any single designation given to it, which, more often than not, happens to be that of “folk music”. Le Bon’s music is steeped in a rich history of the work of culturally rebellious artists from, yes, the folk world, but also well beyond it, from Patti Smith’s iconic combination of street-wise intellectualism and avant-garde taste to Joni Mitchell’s rustic poetics to the Raincoats’ distinctly feminine strain of post-punk. Indeed, it’s a legacy audible in every note of Le Bon’s fourth solo album, Crab Day, whether in the tinny guitars of “Wonderful”, sourced from streetwise rock music of late ‘70s New York and London, or the cold falsetto of “I Was Born on the Wrong Day”, lovingly inspired by the anti-establishment Americana of a decade earlier.
Importantly, Le Bon’s music denies the doctrine of genre, and especially that of the conventional singer-songwriter archetype. Crab Day’s timid tone and sparse instrumentation today may not seem like the product of any iconoclastic sensibility, but the lineage is traceable, and it’s an attitude that pervades Le Bon’s artistic spirit to such a degree that it puts her into a class all her own, far from some of today’s lackadaisical singer-songwriter puritans. Crab Day, more than anything, is an expansion of the generic sonic palette that too often inhibits the artistic whims of Le Bon’s contemporaries, as well as an invitation to embrace disengagement with those commercial restrictions.
The evidence is in the record. On Crab Day, Le Bon finds zeal in grating guitar sounds, stark arrangements, and melodies bordering on atonal, but she has a comparable enthusiasm for classically sentimental piano phrases, conventional chord progressions, and her trademark maudlin vocals. The magic is in utilizing all of these components to craft complex and wholly distinct musical forms on a song-by-song basis, which is exactly how Crab Day comes together.
In the scope of Le Bon’s musical vocabulary, these divisions of musical ingredients are not contradictory but the multiple facets of a personal and human art. Crab Day is assembled from a range of sometimes complementary and sometimes seemingly incompatible styles, but this ultimately serves as an illustration of the true extent of Le Bon’s powerfully versatile creative voice. The gentle beauty of “Love Is Not Love”, for instance, may seem out of step with the rollicking pace and minimalist charge of “We Might Resolve”, but their differences serve to delineate the fringes of Le Bon’s creative frame, and even still, each features elements of the other’s design. Together (along with other idiosyncratic tracks like “I’m a Dirty Attic” and “Yellow Blinds, Cream Shadows”, the titles of which nicely exemplify Le Bon’s penchant for compounding raw bareness and poetic intimacy), they form a complete and balanced picture which rejects the traditionalism and musical conservatism typically associated with conventional singer-songwriters.
The beauty of Crab Day is that it can be dismantled and its individual components laid bare to reveal itself as a stunning work of alchemical mastery, or it can be enjoyed simply as a singular, coherent musical object which still aims to disrupt the segregationist agenda of a corporate-run, institutionalized music machine. Approached from any direction, Crab Day is a fully featured, dazzling example of Cate Le Bon’s boundlessly surprising versatility.