DRINKS is the project of two decidedly left-of-centre musicians who flirt with the foundations of pop: Welsh songwriter Cate le Bon and partner in crime Tim Presley – one of many former members of The Fall and the brains behind White Fence. On 2015 debut ‘Hermits on Holiday’, they successfully found a balance between pleasing art-rock experimentation and all-out self-indulgence. Follow-up ‘Hippo Lite’ finds the pair testing these boundaries even more, while exploring the gorgeous surroundings of a southern France town.
For ‘Hippo Lite’, these two hermits really did go on holiday, homing themselves in St. Hippolyte Du Fort for a month. There, free of phone signal and bathed in 30-degree sun, they recorded in an old mill, swam three times a day in the local river, and binged on Jurassic Park DVDs in the evening. It sounds like the perfect zen trip away, and the experience rubs off on this neatly self-contained record, made without any interference or anxious reminder of deadlines.
Opener ‘Blue From the Dark’ – the album’s most melodic, straightforward song, and something of a red herring – has a sun-drenched, small-town feel. Plucked acoustics, strewn piano notes and the odd stab of strings are backed by the tap-tap of a typewriter. You can practically hear the town’s church bells ringing, local kids cycling to school, shopkeepers opening their doors.
Presley describes the record as “broken music” and “a crumble”, reflecting the worn, dilapidated building they called home for a month. As ‘Hippo Lite’ progresses, its infrastructure does indeed begin to crumble. Songs get progressively more uptight and fidgety, a battle against the feeling of caving in. ‘Leave the Lights On’ could be a deconstructed Talking Heads song spun upside-down, and closer ‘You Could Be Better’ might be mistaken for the work of fictional art-pop prodigy Frank Sidebottom. At one point, Presley claims, he and Le Bon used the sound of a frog’s ribbit for an instrument.
It’s here where ‘Hippo Lite’ verges towards sounding like music that was only ever made for its makers, rather than an outside audience. In a quest to discover simple living free of consequence, Le Bon and Presley can, at times, get lost in their own little bubble. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint another act who recalls DRINKS’ vividly weird, cinematic strain of pop. And for that, perhaps it’s proof that isolation in a quaint French town can lead to something special. Maybe we should all give it a try.