“There’s an orchestra playing with you / It’s an orchestra, playing for you,” Cate le Bon and Tim Presley intone during the oddly beautiful Greasing Up.

Arriving midway through their new album Hippo Lite, the notion of an orchestra hits the weird core at the heart of this music they’ve been exploring. A sonic game of Kerplunk!, how skeletal can the structure of music be to fill the aural space? Where is total saturation reached, and more clearly, where is the total collapse of structure? The orchestra in question feels like not much more than what was to hand in the cottage they shared to lay the album out for a summer month. Staying in St Hippolyte Du Fort in southern France gave both the name and the framework to this new batch of music.

The pair have whittled away at a particularly unmistakable sound following the previous Drinks album Hermits on Holiday as well as Le Bon’s production on Presley’s The Wink, while Presley regularly features in Le Bon’s works. It’s a lean spiderweb of sound, a skillful determination to describe forms only with the lightest of touches. Music that’s excised everything beyond the wireframe required to define itself. The events that inspire the choppy fragments of songs are as much about the squeaky doors, the warm evening air, and the tracing of unselfconscious moments of raw inspiration.

Interviewing Tim last year, he revealed a strategy in his lyrics was “putting tuxedos on ugly words and making beautiful words dirty.” This album is full of odd twists, wordplays, and snippets that feel like words lifted directly out of the creative process. There is, at times, almost a sense that words are boiled down into textures, shapes, and pure sounds, as Faust often played with. An art-infused graphic pop filled with text boxes of Lorem Ipsum dummy copy… Married with textures of ambient sound, the sonic palette quickly becomes beautifully intoxicating. Everything just sits within the threshold of forward momentum.

Possibly the most gorgeous they have ever been, Blue From The Dark opens the album like slice of the 1970 surrealist film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The guitar, piano, and resonance feel like a distillation of the fairy-tale. A hymn to woodpeckers, cicadas, and the swaying light of a candle…

Real Outside hits that clanking robotic funk of New York’s No Wave. At under a minute, When I Was Young seems to meditate on a captured bubble of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, like every tiny sound may just blossom or warp into a little mental rollercoaster all on its own. Field sounds, a simple guitar, and a pulse intertwine as (quite possibly) the dinner-pot bubbles In The Night Kitchen.

As the album moves on, Ducks takes things to one natural conclusion of tying itself in knots. A tumbling groove turning itself inside out as “What’s on your mind / Saturation” loops demonically. Leave The Lights On performs a similar spiky Mayo Thomson scattershot. You may well catch yourself laughing and singing along ‘dinosaur dinosaur’ in disbelief…

After this late-album meltdown, the final two tracks realign things somewhat. Pink or Die encase Cate in a wonderful downbeat organ vamp. And at just over five minutes, You Could Be Better closes the album as the longest track. A wonderful, suddenly opening panorama; a melding of strings, synth, and industrial noises. Gentled echoed harmonized vocals, and it seems the nonsense words, the bizarre orchestra, the French summer heat now make beautiful sense.

Hippo Lite definitely dances on the line of what counts as a major project and a side project. Do you have to hear a musician working hard, sweating blood, or having fun? What’s an idea worthy of studio time, and what’s an aborted demo? This 35-minute disc plays with all these expectations, but what makes it such wonderfully intoxicated listening is measured by the fact that when the disc ends, I’m stumped by what to play next, and just hit play again.

If music is marked by the desire to live in it for as long as you can, the Hippo Lite is pop oddness at its very best.

Hippo Lite is out on vinyl, CD, and digital April 20 via Drag City, or pick it up here on Bandcamp.

Review originally appeared in Brown Noise Unit April 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s