CYRK begins before you are ready for it, fading in quickly on "Falcon Eyed" as if its brash, thumping backbeat had begun well before you turned up. As soon as you get your bearings, the song transforms into an airy waltz, with Cate Le Bon's doubled vocals straddling a full octave, the odd bell tinkling in the far corners of the speakers. It's a song of continual surprises, as is every other track on Cyrk. A well-worn parlor piano anchors the Beatle-y "Puts Me to Work" as it evolves from languid to urgent; "Fold the Cloth" grounds a dizzying verse with fat bass-organ pulses; "Ploughing Out" starts as a breezy lullaby then hastens its pace to become a full-squall skronk jam.
It's an absolutely masterful record, one that finds addictive sounds lurking in very unusual places, and one that brandishes that familiar torch of late-'60s psychedelia—the Pretty Things would have killed to get some of these timbres on S.F. Sorrow—but offers something wholly unique in the process.
That wholly unique thing is Le Bon, the Welsh singer/songwriter who you might have first heard on a track from Neon Neon, the collaboration between fellow Welsh countryman Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) and American producer Boom Bip. Le Bon's first solo album Me Oh My garnered some attention upon its release in 2009, and Le Bon toured with St. Vincent last year, but with the just-released Cyrk earning rave reviews in the US, Le Bon is poised to dominate the listening habits of a specific breed of music fan throughout 2012. (Brooklyn Vegan called her Mercury Lounge show on February 9 "the current show to beat for 2012.")
The attention is entirely deserved, even if Le Bon is still getting used to it. "It's great!" she says. "But it's surreal, because the album came out first in the US, so it's kind of all been happening thousands of miles away from me." Le Bon doesn't necessarily categorize her sound as psychedelic; rather, she views it as an extension of a Welsh style that was forged in response to '90s Britpop by bands like Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. "They were experimental, genuinely psychedelic, weird bands, and I think it's influenced a lot of people in my generation. It didn't match up to Britpop whatsoever. I think there's a massive influence on the Welsh music scene because of that."
Le Bon mentions the thriving Welsh-language and bilingual music scene in Cardiff, as well as the Welsh Rare Beat compilation issued by Finders Keepers, as further examples of an established Welsh sound—one that's relatively exotic to American ears whose experience with Welsh music ends at Tom Jones' meaty torso. The precision of Le Bon's Welsh diction is equally exotic; coupled with the low end of her voice's enormous range, it's earned her comparisons to Nico, although Le Bon's music has infinitely more vitality.
Cyrk, named for a style of Polish poster art that flourished during the 20th century, was recorded quickly, with a week for the basic tracks and another week for overdubs. "We had access to all the Super Furry Animals' synths and guitars and pedals, so we had just the best time tearing through all their stuff," Le Bon says. "But I like to spend a short amount of time in the studio, because it's quite easy to meander and keep adding things. It's good to keep yourself on your toes."