Initially championed by fellow Welsh sonic adventurers such as Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers, Cate Le Bon is rapidly leaving the class of the 1990s behind.
Rhys memorably described her sound as “Bobbie Gentry and Nico fighting over a Casio keyboard and melody winning”. One of the most unique bands of this era, Atlanta’s Deerhunter, worship at the alt-altar of Le Bon. Even the great John Cale has sought her out for a collaboration. And, in a testimonial from another esteemed musician, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy hailed Le Bon as “the best out there at the moment”, citing the quality of her musicianship for particular praise: “Whenever I try to figure out her guitar parts, they’re way harder than they sound.”
This enigmatic singer, who was born Cate Timothy, took her name from a joke that got completely out of hand, inspired by Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran appearing at the Brits. Having attempted to forsake Cardiff for California until the pesky pandemic disrupted this transatlantic move, her music further progresses on Pompeii, her eighth studio album.
In addition to those shimmering and deceptively complicated guitar parts, Le Bon’s voice floats, hovers, croons, stutters and generally completely mystifies. It’s a bit like Liz Fraser channelling Nico, but that’s still not anywhere near close enough to capturing her otherworldly brilliance and beguiling mystery.
The beauty of getting lost in Pompeii is not knowing exactly what is going on, or what instrument is being played at any one time with anything approaching certainty. Le Bon’s towering achievement is that it all sounds like perfectly natural pop music.
There is nothing whatsoever wilful or indulgent about Pompeii. It is best described in the words of a lyric in its title track: like “sipping wine through a telescope”. It shares its effortless inventiveness and transcendent power with a record by Low, Hey What, which also sounds like absolutely nothing else.
Shut out of her newly adopted home in the Mojave Desert, recording Pompeii saw Le Bon involuntarily move back to Cardiff, producing an album of pandemic dislocation that makes perfect sense in surreal and fractured times, although it is probably best to disregard some of the prerelease chatter about this being a so-called lockdown album. As always, if the tunes are good, it doesn’t really matter a hoot to the listener how the contents were made.
Elements of synthpop collide with the best saxophone sound on a musical recording in quite a while. Le Bon plays all instruments except for drums and the aforementioned sax. The nine tracks on Pompeii constitute a pleasingly coherent collection that forms its own sonic universe, confirming not onlythat Cate Le Bon is as good as everyone makes her out to be, but that she’s even better.