When two uniquely talented musicians decide to work together, the results can be breathtaking (Mick Karn and Peter Murphy’s Dalis Car) or frustrating (David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancin’ in the Street”). Drinks, the collaborative project of Tim Presley and Cate Le Bon, have created something that fits firmly in the former category.
For the last decade or so, Presley has been making bedroom recordings under the moniker White Fence. He’s collaborated with Ty Segall and has even been name-checked in a song by Dion Lunadon of A Place to Bury Strangers. Le Bon’s musical history is just as distinctive. Singing in both English and Welsh, she’s released a handful of albums and EPs in addition to working with Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Neon Neon, Richard James, Matt Davies and others.
The first album from Drinks, Hermits on Holiday, came out in 2015. While it bears the distinctive stamp of both Le Bon and Presley’s styles, it only hints at the magical, otherworldly qualities found on Hippo Lite. The name is a pun on the location of the album’s recording, Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort in the south of France, and the play on words is appropriate for the contrasting textures found within its twelve tracks.
Even those who are intimately familiar with Presley and Le Bon’s solo work might find it impossible to describe or define the music on Hippo Lite. It’s spellbinding from start to finish. Presley and Le Bon’s voices are quite different; their harmonies create a frequency that feels like being pulled in two directions at once. When these vocals are coupled with songs that rely more on their percussive qualities than traditional song structures, the resulting effect is exhilarating.
Le Bon doesn’t so much sing lyrics as she channels exquisite sounds from her mouth. Her voice elevates “Blue From the Dark” into something fascinating, at times approaching the mystical, plaintive qualities of Os Mutantes’ “O Relogio.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are songs like the delicate “Greasin’ Up” (which comes across like early Brian Eno) and “Pink or Die” (which traffics in the signifiers of experimental post-punk with its buzzing electric organ and a repetitive vocal line from Le Bon).
Then there’s “Real Outside,” the first track released from Hippo Lite and one of its most ambitious. A repetitive metallic noise is set against detuned guitar and rubber-band bass, all while a peculiar clicking sound fades in and out. Le Bon adopts a shrill tone that will no doubt annoy the hell out of listeners who can barely tolerate the vocal register of Sparks’ Russell Mael. Yet the song is undeniably mesmerizing, and will insinuate itself into your memory like a persistent dream.
Even more arresting are “Ducks” and “Leave the Lights On,” two tracks that feel almost improvisational. In the first one, the melody is interrupted frequently by Le Bon squealing “what’s on your mind?” in a manner that would probably make coworkers ask you to please turn down your speakers. “Leave the Lights On” is only slightly more accessible, yet still relies on a stop-start rhythm, Le Bon’s piercing falsetto, Presley’s odd mumbling and a trombone (!) to get its point across.
Still, Drinks isn’t self-consciously weird or pretentious, and there are genuine melodies in these tunes. In “Corner Shops,” the combination of bass, guitar and a bit of piano elicit something that is as bizarre as it is catchy, even as Presley sings one melody and Le Bon another. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the words; it’s okay to sing along with whatever you can figure out, Cocteau Twins-style.
It’s not just the combination of Presley and Le Bon’s vocals that make Hippo Lite so delightful. There are several instrumental tracks which are equally wonderful, albeit much shorter in length.
During “In the Night Kitchen,” a thrumming beat is offset by off kilter finger-picked guitar and the sounds of birds chirping, until a piano melody arrives to create something almost stately, before the whole thing quite literally goes off the rails. Interstitial tracks like “If It,” “If It (Reprise)” and “When I Was Young” further enhance the haunting qualities of the album, veering from inspired field music to what a cassette tape might sound after being rescued from a flood.
The longest track on Hippo Lite is also its last. “You Could Be Better” is based on suspenseful strings and synths that increase the tension even as Presley and Le Bon sing soothingly atop the cacophony. An intermittent piano melody gives the song a poignancy that is as welcome as it is surprising.
The music of Drinks is uncategorizable, yet addictive. For those who crave something that genuinely challenges the ears, Hippo Lite is a real find.
Hippo Lite was released by Drag City on April 20.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.