[Drag City; 2018]
DRINKS is the collaborative side project of Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley, truly a psychedelic crossover event for the ages. Le Bon is known for making arresting psych-rock, characterized by mercurial guitar work and her distinctive, Nico-lost-in-the-woods vocals. Presley mostly records under the name White Fence and has a reputation for erratic garage-pop couched in consciously lo-fi production values. Their last record under the DRINKS name was 2015’s Hermits on Holiday, a gamble of irregular post-punk experimentation; less ripping it up and starting again, more just ripping it up for confetti.
Despite sounding like a short-lived soft drink, Hippo Lite takes its name from Saint Hippolyte-du-Fort, a sleepy town in the south of France where the pair retreated to record. Artists withdrawing to relatively peaceful surroundings to fuel creativity can often seem hackneyed, a well-worn trope of the press release, but in this case, it’s something of a crucial detail. The album is saturated with a sense of place; many tracks are littered with unassuming field recordings of the French countryside, croaking frogs and all. Part of its exploratory nuance lies in a conscious evocation of rural, Mediterranean tranquility; surroundings don’t so much inspire the tracks as dissolve into them. Le Bon and Presley flout conventional album architectonics in the name of producing something profoundly, unashamedly weird.
What’s made DRINKS a compelling project thus far is the surprisingly fluid synthesis of the pair’s idiosyncrasies. Many of Le Bon’s motifs are here — erratic chord mutations, that craggy guitar tone — as is the scratchy eccentricity of Presley’s White Fence output. The first few listens of Hippo Lite are baffling — frustrating, even — declaring a nomadic kind of creativity. Ideas emerge and evaporate without ever seeming to really develop. It can seem completely arbitrary in its movements, like a dog who’s just been let out into the sun and doesn’t know what to do with itself first.
Listless opener “Blue From the Dark” is like a lullaby — nothing but sedate guitar and wispy vocals, with the dim presence of a fussing child on the fringes. “In the Night Kitchen” features little more than a lithe guitar and nature’s ambient squawk. The two musicians stretch the dynamics of “atmosphere” to a point of quiet fracture, yet the record has a cumulative effect that’s oddly intoxicating. With multiple listens, you’re gradually absorbed into the pair’s bizarre compositional logic; what’s slowly revealed is a short (30-ish minutes) series of sketches, more humble than glib, evoking surreptitious soundcheck smiles.
“Real Outside” seems fashioned from the silt of Le Bon’s outstanding 2016 album Crab Day, all guitar ricochet and bobbing piano keys. The spidery fingerpicking and processual vocals of “Greasing Up” are reminiscent of the more batshit work of The Incredible String Band, sounding like the pair’s attempt at a foley-ish recreation of a Renaissance fair. Such a jumbled track-to-track progression ends up having the incongruous charm of a charity shop browse. There are Beefheart-esque flights from structural orthodoxy; the avant-pop of “Corner Shops” has Presley’s spectral backing vocals singing of “temporary living conditions,” while guitar fragments are woven into wayward piano. The pair rightly conceive of the avant-garde as something transformative but still fundamentally a sort of game. Otherworldly string arrangements constantly simmer and buzz, recalling the oblique appendages of The Raincoats’ Vicky Aspinall, like on closer “You Could Be Better,” where angular strings act as a strangely grounding influence.
It’s fun to imagine the two sequestered away, recording this album, wrestling with the essential impenetrability of the banal — something like a more interesting, less puritanical Walden. On “Pink Or Die,” Le Bon delivers the inscrutable line “I am the color of here” — at times, the record is just classically Surreal, a bucolic unheimlich provoking a fleeting confrontation with the unconscious. What remains most alluring about this experiment’s broken logic is the sense that you’re furtively occupying someone else’s dream.