by Ravi Ghosh
Kelly Lee Owens’ artist page on Facebook typifies her carefree straddling of the commercial and underground worlds of electronic music: “Not wanting to be inside any particular box”, the entry under the ‘genre’ section refreshingly reads, before a carefully constructed third-person biography takes us along her winding route to her self-titled debut, an album which “bridges the gaps between cavernous techno…and spectral pop” – meticulous words for a meticulous album. However much we wish to focus on them, Owens’ persona and background continue to delight and captivate before we even arrive at her punchy LP. She worked as a nurse before taking internships and positions at the likes of XL Recordings and Rough Trade East, and her Twitter profile, instead of robotic plugs, is adorned with positive reviews and the odd Carl Jung quotation – she reads R. D. Laing too, she revealed in her “Rising Week” interview with Pitchfork in January. Hers is a mind on the move, consciously thinking about consciousness, letting her interests and past spill and overflow into her work.
The album opens with the ethereal yet brief “S.O”, the soft vocal evoking the work of shoe gazing dream-pop – more reminiscent of bands such as Beach House and Cat’s Eyes than to the likes of Daniel Avery, with whom she collaborated on his wildly successful “Drone Logic”. The second track, her tribute to Arthur Russell, conjures the same sentiments, though this time with a more powerful dub and drum presence. Throughout the album’s opening we’re increasingly aware of her adherence to her own thematic dictum – not wanting to be inside any particular box. The woozy vocals and relatively brief tracks align her with neatly packaged synth-pop, but the ease with which we are able to deconstruct the tracks in our minds while listening assures us of the oncoming techno and acid influences: innovative layering and thick drum tracks follow. For those looking for a distinctive juncture between these two styles, “Anxi.” is likely the closest you’re going to get.
Again, Owens straddles and balances texture and emotion with such ease, so that when her warning that “this is the narrative of reality” bleeds into the song’s musical volta just before the two minute mark, it feels like the sun dipping below the horizon during a DJ’s sunset slot, as the song descends into an entrancing dub passage. “Evolution” is perhaps the most overt demonstration of the skills honed working with the likes of Avery and Ghost Culture, and the depth and darkness of the brutally simple construction reminds the listener (who by now is surely dancing in some shape or form) of producers like Tirzah and even Daphni. Owens effortlessly guides us, just as we may be lulled into thinking otherwise, that this is an LP, not a mix or collection of tracks with one eye on that craft. “Throwing Lines” cuts through the repetitive pulse of “Bird” to do just this in a Grimes-esque gem as the album nears its close, but as we sit back and appreciate the nine-minute, falsetto-laden “8” to end Owens’ debut, we feel almost cheated in that the whole experience has passed so quickly. Perhaps this is again our sense of being transfixed upon the minimal techno elements of the album which are reminiscent of a longer set, but looking for an overarching thread throughout the tracks is largely futile. Each is a rich parcel in its own right, and although a variety of different genres can be identified throughout, they rarely come into conflict or opposition – the album remains forgiving yet powerful; not unaggressive, but definitely not forceful in its extended flirtation with brooding techno. When the vocals are layered upon these electronic elements, we’re never able to fully identify which takes precedence despite the ease with which we’re able to separate them, such is her refusal to subordinate one instrument for another; her voice remains the most protean tool when complementing her innovative use of drum tracks and synths.
Kelly Lee Owens then is a delightful patchwork, hallucinatory and mesmeric in places, but beautifully simple and crystalline in others, and all delivered with an artistic weight and authority. The 28 year old has shown considerable mastery over what is a relatively new craft for her, yet the album’s maturity is striking. In terms of the feeling at its close that leaves us yearning for more, consider the album a repeat prescription – going back to the beginning and doing it all over again is a pleasantly rewarding tonic.