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Some bands grasp so tight only to find their hands empty. So: To surrender to time rather than to conquer time, I think that’s the crucial decision Cate Le Bon makes as a musician—and here I mean only the eventual effect of the music, since of course a great deal of hard, invisible, time-conquering work has gone into its creation. It’s all the more apparent live how crucially tempo figures into Le Bon’s maybe-lethargic guitar jams. I suspect her band has tried them at every conceivable speed and then, finding the right one, often at the pace of deceptive leisure, they can finally play and let out their endless sigh. An ordinary brain would make the songs twice as fast and kill their magic, but I never minded hearing the players’ occasional careful realignments within a slower groove, as they worked each recorded gem live, because what these songs gain with the sacrifice of more efficient speed is, well, total perfection: “Are You With Me Now?” and “Duke” in particular, these could not possibly be made any better. They let you let go of the room, and cry, if they gave you anything to cry about; her music (like all music, but I’m trying to make a point here) is good for the soul. Pavement used to get here, and Stephen Malkmus still does, with more freewheeling variety, though I’d have to say that, much as I love Wig Out at Jagbags, Le Bon has just barely supplanted Malkmus’s role in my listening, winter 2013-14.
This: “There is a feeling I love, buried in my brow,” complemented by such exquisite and unassuming guitar work. Imperceptibly the undertow (Will Canzoneri on bass) takes hold and the song rides a huge surge of good feeling as a drawn out (to the exact right length, except not exact, of course) aaaaare leads from the bridge into one last round of the chorus. Later: “The weather licked your face dry.” All of these things, on her recent Mug Museum, brought me to the edge of my reverie/epiphany, and the live versions took me the last little distance. It’s enough, such perfection, to make 2012’s also very fine Cyrk seem closer to murky in hindsight, though some of its highlights slotted nicely among the songs of Mug Museum’s first side, their sharpness re-announced by the proximity. It’s all a matter of sequencing: Mug gathers all those mid-tempo (misleading-tempo) pearls on side one (so that there’s also a cumulative effect) and everything else (fast/loud, slow/haunting; yes, she moves to those extremes, too) on side two, whereas Cyrk mixes it all together with more whimsy and intuition. That’s probably the more artistically courageous approach, but if her live set mirrored the new album, it must be because she knows the way to win her audience is to make herself an undeniable fact, by emphasizing without interruption the most malleable and effective aspect of her craft, song after song after song.
Her other songs, the ones that are quickly recognizable as fast or slow, are where the oft-noted psychedelic and Nico-indebted aspects of her craft creep in, alternately. I mentioned extremes, but that’s not quite right, since the harsh rumble of “Wild” and the twilit meandering of “Mirror Me,” alike, are entirely their own things, not endpoints of a spectrum, not isolated explorations of sounds that intermingle elsewhere, or anything like that. These are also the moments when Le Bon introduces a more inescapable tension in her music, often in spite or because of the improvisatory air of H. Hawkline’s melodies on organ. I think those aforementioned mid-tempo songs are the most natural choices for Le Bon’s live set, inherently, regardless what their pace reveals of their construction; a couple more tangible reasons, in addition, made the later part of her set slightly less rewarding: organ too low in the mix, the coda of “Wild” played with a routine tight grasp, not the elemental chaos of the record. I make these observations very mildly. Through all of it, Le Bon remains an inscrutable, hypnotic performer, a musician’s musician in a black jumpsuit, like The Joy Formidable’s Ritzy Bryan with greater ambivalence about her status as a rock star. Even so, I consider Le Bon one.
Kevin Morby (Woods, Babies) inhabits a similar musical space but he’s also intent on evoking the sound of Highway 61 Revisited. I would’ve sworn that one or two of the songs from his set were Dylan covers (particularly the one with the line about how “you never even wondered what that door was for”), but I can’t confirm this. Instead, most came from his New York-era album Harlem River, which, if the live versions were any indication, is as sincere and untroubled (or troubled in an older fashion) and yet resonant a New York album as we get anymore. He’s an appealing performer but doesn’t telegraph it all, keeps some things hidden, so I was imagining that, if caught in the situation of Llewyn Davis, he’d also be undeservedly denied stardom by the folk gatekeepers. And yet, sent back home from his futile Chicago audition with nothing to show for it except wet shoes, he’d likely be more carefree.
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