Willie Reviews Cate Le Bon’s “Reward”

Willie Reviews Cate Le Bon’s “Reward”


Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon’s new album, Reward, approaches isolation and loneliness through a soft, luminous instrumental set-up. It borrows bits from ‘70s songwriters, delivers some classic choruses, and somehow remains beyond the umbrella of curious imitation. RPM’s review:

A famous principle of songwriting says you should never give away the chorus before its time. The chorus, being both a sacred and a fragile thing, shall not be contaminated by the dirty workmanship of the verse and shall not be foreshadowed directly by lyrics, by high notes, or by forthright harmonic suggestions. It should surprise and delight, but also be a comfortable refuge for the listener—so says the producer wearing shades in the lobby. Balancing a chorus like this is as hard as it sounds, but you hear its successful execution on Cate Le Bon’s Reward. She can introduce a cathartic melody or run a song off the rails for the fun of it, but you always notice the moment she goes into chorus mode. It’s a trick that encapsulates the feeling of the record, one that marks a unique entry in the recent 1970s psychedelic-folk-pop-singer-songwriter revival craze. Contemporary artists like Jessica Pratt and Weyes Blood have found great success diving into the sound of artists like Vashti Bunyan as well as more maudlin pop from the same era. It’s hard to say exactly why the decade is making a creeping comeback. Was it the next logical step after dealing with the ‘80s? Had it been temporarily forgotten? Was it the YouTube algorithm suggesting Linda Perhacs? In any case, Cate Le Bon is on its outskirts, drawing on the pioneering women in psych-folk and the golden oldies of the ‘70s.

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Reward gives us velvety pop, but occasionally yanks it away for a rawer alternative. The nuts and bolts of the former are solid. “Daylight Matters” has long, straight hair and is totally unhurried. The verses are self-contained, and all roads lead back to the initial piano chords. The structure’s flipped, in that what we hear first is functionally the chorus. The comfortable return to that chorus asks for nothing but delivers everything. It doesn’t venture far, and it doesn’t need to. On the other hand, “You Don’t Love Me” is more aspirational. It bubbles and pops with the sound of a saxophone, and even pauses for a drum fill after the chorus. It’s very near an imitation of classic radio hits. If you listen to an oldies station dedicated to ‘70s pop, you’ll hear an endless supply of catchy tracks you might never have heard before. The reason? Their novelty and sentimentality doomed them to become relics. On her own versions of these kinds of tracks, Le Bon focuses her efforts on the out-of-nowhere chorus as a shortcut to the kitsch. “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” has verses that sound somewhere between post-punk and new wave, but has a straight-shooting chorus that erases the atmosphere completely, for a moment. She uses it again on “Magnificent Gestures,” but in reverse. The chorus breaks down into spoken word. Her mode is not simple parody or tonal tourism, but collage that can try to approximate emotion.

Le Bon’s melodic style is notably improvised, for the most part. Even when working in a recognizable mode, her melody lines are not consistent within a song or easy to notate. On the verse of “Here It Comes Again,” you can hear the live adjustments she makes with her voice to fit the song. Of course, the songs are not made up on the spot, but oftentimes her vocals are paced unevenly, as if each word is looking for its place. This gives the music a spontaneity, like she’s riffing. I would argue she’s at her best when the vocals match the planned nature of the backing tracks. “Daylight Matters” is a gorgeous song for a number of reasons, most of all because it represents the best case scenario of the rhythm meeting the piano meeting the vocals in a groove that sounds instantly recognizable.

Cate Le Bon, photo by Ivana Kličković

Though the album is largely electronically programmed, the production doesn’t feel greyish. Instead, it’s able to color itself nicely. “Sad Nudes” is built around a single sample that sounds like a one second excerpt from a commercial jingle. This is surrounded by a jangling assortment of players, including the guitar, the piano, and the saxophone again. Despite the instrumentation, the fact that Le Bon wrote the album on a piano still comes through. Repeating chords from an acoustic piano on “Sad Nudes” and “Meet the Man” are central and help explain the album’s monastic imagery. Composing on the piano is an individual act with only the expectation of the final, orchestrated result. You might wonder why Le Bon is trudging down a blank cliff on the album’s cover, but despite all the inviting melodies and deep arrangements, the conception of the album was a solitary effort. She wrote the album in the natural isolation of England’s Lake District and has said “There’s a strange romanticism to going a little bit crazy and playing the piano to yourself.”

Le Bon’s invention worked outward from herself to craft a texturally interesting world, but there is alienation and pessimism throughout. Lyrics like “I was born with no lips / drip, drip, drips” and “We will have to talk / But I’m writing it down” speak to the impossibility of crafting something intelligible. The record both borrows from the hits and finds itself in fragments of other styles. Perhaps the most direct statement of purpose comes on “Miami,” a song that describes the Florida city in name only. Miami just a word, to which Le Bon sings, “I take some time / I have some thoughts.” That’s songwriting, isn’t it?

Score: A dizzying descent into exciting songwriting.

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