Thursday, March 30, 2017

Kelly Lee Owens - Kelly Lee Owens Review

Who is it better to hear reviews from? Those who have no connections to the artist and are judging based solely on the music, or those who know a great deal about said artist but harbor certain bias, positive or negative? It's a question I've pondered many times whilst reviewing music, and one that has no definitive answer. While the latter seems more obvious, the former seems more honest. Spoiler alert, I love Kendrick Lamar, so chances are his upcoming album will be favorable in my eyes. My dislike towards Father John Misty on the other hand? Yup, that'll affect my perception of Pure Comedy. Surprises and disappointments come every so often, but predictability plays a significant role when you take the reviewer and their tastes into account. That's why reviews like today's are special; you have no idea what direction they'll take. For certain musicians, it's better to leave their background in the dark, like a willful mystery. That's the case with Kelly Lee Owens and her debut LP. Her name tells me nothing, neither does the unassuming self-title, and the cover provides me with no discernible leeway. Ironically, this all adds to the music's allure.

Truthfully, there is one common connector Kelly Lee Owens has to my tastes, and that comes in the form of Jenny Hval. In 2015, the Norwegian Art Pop oddity was just as unknown to me as Owens is now. In fact, Apocalypse girl was reviewed in much the same fashion, with past shrouded in darkness. Since then, Hval's discography found worth in my library, and last year's Blood Bitch warranted hype too. Suffice to say, after this self-titled, I see Owens following a similar path. Hval appears on 'Anxi,' one of the album's lead singles and my initial discovery point through Spotify's Discover Weekly. It's the only time someone not named Owens appears, and the pulsating synths, multi-layered vocals, tantalizing beat switch, and infinitely artsy, spoken word non-sequiturs provide an excellent jumping off point for the album as a whole. Not so much Hval's presence, but more so the production, which embodies her Ambient Pop works and helps to conjoin the Pop with the Techno. Yes, Techno. Kelly Lee Owens is as much an Art Pop album as it is Tech House. Beautifully executed, atmospherically drenched, and endlessly inviting, the album's diverse collection of tracks welcomes traits found in today's current Electronic scene, along with those two decades removed.

Since each of the ten songs could conceivably be a highlight, it's tough to decide on an apt starting point. In cases like these, I'll begin at the beginning. 'S.O,' even more so than 'Anxi,' represents the ensuing catalog of goodness with Owens' parched vocals swaying elegantly to the tropical vibe. Synthetic drums pound quietly, gusts of wind streak in the distance, and hollow breaths fill the empty air. This is how The xx's career should've gone if 'Intro' was the true definer. 'Arthur' continues on this theme, finding a more comforting role for Owens' vocals lost in the mist. Here, she finds a common ground between Portishead, Grouper, and Jon Hopkins, an atmospheric trio unlike any other. While her influences haunt the album continuously, and could be the one true negative if we're talking originality, Owens' use of her forefathers helps make this a magical album that unites the best of many intriguing sub-genres. Add to this the poise, patience, and professionalism, and it's striking to know that this is merely a debut, and not a high watermark for a seasoned vet. Varying song structures, each distinctive in their own right, whilst remaining netted over a consistent, looming aura, makes this one of the best Art Pop records in recent memory.

Generalities will only get this review so far though, let's talk specifics. 'Evolution,' with its nimble use of percussion, demonic bass, and minimal vocals, makes for a wholly intoxicating experience that finds seductive tendencies matched up against emotionless mechanics. 'Bird,' like a few other tracks here, is entirely instrumental, an excellent decision given the weightlessness of its simple, summery vibe. Minimal Techno plays a prominent role in its foundation, as it does on 'Cbm' as well. To me, these two are the weakest tracks of the bunch though, as they feel overly repetitive and reliant on tried and tested ideas. They're far from bad though, and are still unquestionably essential to Owens' grander scheme. Rounding out the Ambient Pop side, 'Lucid' borrows heavily from Hval, pacing itself wonderfully to the point where, right as it begins to wear thin, a intricate web of bleeps and bloops catches Owens' "lucid" phrase out of its comfort zone, subjecting it to a spacious barrage that works just as well. Slightly similar but still within its own lane, 'Keep Walking' puts the hefty instrumentation in the back, warmer tones in the front, creating a vibe that's reminiscent of Trip-Hop's dying breaths, a la Zero 7 and Telepopmusik.

There's two songs remaining I've failed to mention, and both deserve a place atop Owens' totem pole. Wholly representative of the album as a whole, they form excellence with two tremendously different foundations. Along with 'S.O' and 'Lucid,' 'Throwing Lines' completes the essential Ambient Pop trio, becoming the brightest, most complete in the process. Those who prefer works that have a definitive starting and ending point, unlike 'Lucid's' transitory state, find solace in 'Throwing Lines.' Even though Owens never makes it past the hook, and for good reason, 'Throwing Lines' feels like the most well-rounded song here, and one that shuffle-heads will find appealing. Then there's '8,' the album's near 10-minute closer. Once again, I'm reminded of Hval, and her droning sludge 'Holy Land,' found at the end of Apocalypse, girl. Whereas Hval found beauty in the ugly, Owens finds beauty in the, well, beautiful. '8,' which features a continuous drum n' bass loop intwining with Owens' own soft coo's and skyward synths, makes for an excellent closer that begs to last even longer. Owens works, handedly, because of the decisions its creator makes. Nothing is out of focus here, everything is compact, precise, and declarative. Here's to hoping this is the start of a momentous career, because Kelly Lee Owens deserves a spot atop the Electronic debut pedestal.


  1. Thanks for making me aware of her music, I'm really enjoying the album!

    1. That's great to hear, I'm glad you're digging it!