Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens (2017)

 

 

Kelly Lee Owens’ self-titled debut opens with a feint. “S.O” is unassuming: just sweeping string pads, rubbery drums, and Owens’ breathy vocals. Its biggest moment comes in its last thirty seconds, when the track gets overtaken by the staticked fuss of shaken percussion. For an electronic album, the opener’s vibe is a lot closer to Cocteau than Aphex, more bedroom than dancefloor. “Arthur,” the track that immediately follows, serves as a quiet rebuttal: her vocals remain, but they’re put behind a four-on-the-floor accompaniment, pulsing off-beat, and the sound of rubber hitting air. Taken as a pair, these tracks serve as a sort of thesis statement for Kelly Lee Owens: ambient-pop sensibility, quiet dancefloor foundations.

Of that description, the latter portion may be operative: “S.O” stands as an aesthetic outlier, and other tracks gesture towards extroverted electronic. Nearly every song here finds a groove and sticks to it, no matter the amount of distant vocal work on top; this is clearly music that’s meant to make you dance, in both the smallest clicks and the biggest synth throbs. Throughout Kelly Lee Owens, the 28-year-old producer crafts her own brand of insular and measured dance music, a type that works equally well over headphones or larger sound systems.

The best parts demand a good setup, though. “Lucid” is the first track to blow the doors off, with its walls of strings and room-filling echo of a vocal line giving way to synth arpeggios and steady bass-and-drum programming that stands in sharp contrast to what came before. “Evolution” follows, using a kick-patter, hi-hat, and a few synths to craft a bed for a four-on-the-floor pound to push the track into overdrive; meanwhile, Owens whispers incarnations – “Be the evolution / See the revolution” – that provide just-enough ambience, especially when they’re drenched in reverb underneath a bouncing synth line. “Bird,” despite using almost-schmaltzy strings somewhat reminiscent of “Lucid,” makes up for it when it breaks wide open with a sweaty, room-swallowing bassline.

Excepting the lone instrumental track of “Bird,” Owens speaks through more than her MPC. Her vocals, which often prioritize atmosphere and texture over explicit meaning or comprehensibility, help to coat tracks with a veneer simultaneously immediate and otherworldly. “C.B.M” (Colors, Beauty, Motion) is a mid-set number whose hypnotically-repeated title has two possible meanings: Owens says that it’s about “the motion of traveling around the planet at speed, that slightly lucid & disorientating experience as well as it being awe inspiring and maybe leaving you changed for good,” but the synth lines and muted kick-drum point towards the bustle of the dancefloor. “Keep Walking” contains a few gems behind the synth fuzz: “City through the window / Make it our own / Run to it”; elsewhere, “Lucid” makes the case that she’s “different from the rest” and “somewhere in between” – styles? States of mind? This isn’t a “lyrical” album by any stretch of the imagination, but her airy nothings can turn to mantras given enough time; and if nothing else, the lightness they provide offers a wonderful contrast to the thud of her drum machines.

Sometimes, that lightness overpowers the thud a bit too much and sees Owens putting ideas before songwriting. As consistent as the record eventually gets, it opens with ten minutes of middling tracks – “S.O” does little more than set the tone; the vocal pulse and rubbery whip of “Arthur” get to be overpowering and uninteresting; and “Anxi.,” a collaboration with Jenny Hval, stalls and doesn’t rev up again until a few counterpointing synths drop into the mix halfway through. “Throwing Lines” interrupts a streak of otherwise-great tracks with the same issue, with sonics that spend too much time being vaguely “exotic” and not enough time being interesting. As with “Anxi.”, it eventually gets there – check out the way she manipulates the whoosh of air-on-metal halfway through – but it spends too long getting there to make the payoff worthwhile.

But when she manages to find a spot between planted-feet foundations and floating overtones, Owens passes with flying colors. Especially for a debut, Kelly Lee Owens is promising; she’s arrived fully-formed here, with both aesthetic and technical ability nailed. As it stands, her biggest roadblock is also her most compelling idea: the balancing act she performs between the ephemerality of her vocals and the physicality of her drums. If she can walk that tightrope – as she does about half of the time here – she can make some pretty incredible stuff. The trick comes in making it across the gap without leaving either world behind.

Author: Michael

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