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The Restrained Chaos Of Cate Le Bon

Welsh musician Cate Le Bon’s new album Crab Day, out April 15, is an exercise in restrained chaos. Her off-kilter post-punk wrestles euphonious sounds and lyrics into harmony, pairing jarring electric guitar solos with childlike xylophone arrangements as saxophones seem to puff their way randomly into songs. It’s a record on which Le Bon describes herself as a motion picture film, a dirty attic, a geometric equation, a human satellite (she is never just human). A surrealist collection of songs, it’s the kind of album that demands to not just be heard but seen live in its entirety. And this is exactly what Cate Le Bon did for audiences at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on Monday, the last date of a special, small tour of playing Crab Day in full.

The show began with a series of instrumental tracks, with Le Bon on electric piano and her five-piece backing band BANANA moving between two dueling xylophones, sax, electric guitar, and a bass so loud it was clearly meant to be the star. With each stage member mechanically tapping at their respective instrument, the songs felt like a slow-churning machine, each cog grinding together to move the song along. After three of these lengthy, gorgeous songs, a large screen was lowered on the stage, Le Bon and BANANA disappeared, and in their place a short film directed by Turner Prize-nominated director Phil Collins played, featuring dancers performing abstract compositions to instrumental versions of Crab Day’s songs.

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When the band returned to the stage they were dressed in black and white, wearing the same swoop of black under-eyeliner Le Bon wears on Crab Day’s record cover, and each wore a different colored, wide-brimmed knit hat. “Welcome to Crab Day,” Le Bon said briefly in a deep, dry monotone at the start of the set. It was a tone she’d use throughout the show, her stage presence humorously terse between songs. The juxtaposition between her and BANANA’s stoicism alongside their silly little hats and absurdist music was quietly funny. When Le Bon played guitar she played as if she were inside a box, jerking slightly with her guitar as if to expand constraints. And when the band reached the track “I Was Born on the Wrong Day,” Le Bon was sure to tell the audience they had come to side B of the album.

Crab Day is a fantastic, fun record that delights in showing its own moving parts, and Cate Le Bon’s performance of it in full was a move of confidence. Even when the encore came and Le Bon sang three older songs (“Mug Museum,” “I Can’t Help You,” and “Are You With Me Now?”), the previously played record immediately felt like stronger material in comparison. Le Bon has described BANANA as a “semi-experimental, semi-improvisational” band, but it’s clear from their performance that every element of each song has a specific, timed part. Members frequently looked to each other for cues, smiling at a slightly missed xylophone gong or the introduction of a creeping clarinet. The last minute of the song “How Do You Know?” is dedicated to Le Bon’s repetitive, looping guitar riff as BANANA’s bass and drums follow, the entire group standing on stage and moving in slow synchronicity. What Cate Le Bon has perfected is the sound of improvisation, of aestheticized clatter, in the same way that Surrealist painters of the 1940s festishized automaticism and spontanenity. And if the music of Crab Day is 2-D on the record, in person it benefits immensely from a 3-D presence, every instrumental quirk and bell jingle demonstrated in tandem so we can see what makes Cate Le Bon’s great machine move.

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Hazel Cills