Review Summary: dreamy and gray
The cover of Kelly Lee Owens' eponymous debut matches its music in a number of ways. Her intentional off-center position and that curious look on her face seem to go hand-in-hand with the wonder and wholesomeness found in the album's songs. And perhaps this is just a placebo effect caused by seeing the cover first, but the sound of the album also seems very, very gray. I don't mean that as a criticism - well, maybe slightly. Her lush, rainy techno-pop arrangements are exceedingly pleasant, and surprisingly pensive for the genre. But at times, in their strict competence, the songs depart from their soft, cutesy 'pleasantness' and move closer to 'innocuous:' a simple gray.
There are welcome bursts of color: most notably the guest spot on 'Anxi.' from Norwegian experimental folk/pop engineer Jenny Hval (a musician of such high stature in my mind that I nearly forgot to tell you who she is), whose simply angelic voice fits wonderfully among the low, understated techno kicks and the surrounding falls of strings. A few of Owens' melodies border on resplendent as well, mostly consisting of a few simple note changes clearly designed to float above the background rhythms, rather than ride along with them. It's hard to not be slightly enamored with the calm glee in her voice as she breathes "didn't know it could be so
" in 'S.O' or "Lucid, lucid/Don't you see it?
" in 'Lucid.'
Strangely though, despite one of the album's main drawbacks being its rife uniformity, other songs stick out as odd counterpoints to the album's aesthetic. 'Arthur' abandons any kind of 'pop' hook in favor of a symphony of distant "ooh
"s, and this is precisely what makes the song so compelling, compared to most of the other tracks. It's evocative simply by rhythm and sound, rather than melody and word. Not that one is inherently superior, but the fact that Owens insists on the minimal techno-backbone makes the 'pop' aspect feel kind of shoehorned-in at times. As I mentioned, a few of her melodies here are effective, but more than a few end up rather tedious, such as the hook of 'Keep Walking.' It's a melody so simplistic you can hear the end of it before she sings it, and she repeats it far more than necessary. One can't help but wonder how much more enjoyable the song would be without any vocals at all.
There is a song here without vocals, 'Bird,' and it's nice enough. But unfortunately, it seems to fall into the trapping of being the 'lone' instrumental, as once it locks into its main groove, it kinda just sits there without any atmospheric variation, seemingly for the sake of adding length. Subgenres like house are built on repetition, but Owens doesn't seem to quite have a handle on the craft of that yet; when listening to 'Bird,' it's hard not to picture that slight cut you hear once the marker moves to the next dragged-and-dropped region in the program. '8' is slightly more successful on this front, as it employs a bit more variation in its rhythm, and as it's the one track after 'Arthur' that uses wordless vocals, again to chilling effect. I don't think it's a coincidence that those two tracks are the ones that feel the most natural. Of course there are ways to gracefully work a pop influence into music like this, but Owens' breathy, slightly disembodied singing voice is just too similarly colored to its surroundings to make the juxtaposition feel needed. Her artistic voice is clearly there, though, and clearly capable of something a bit more realized. Here's to something a little more lucid, lucid.