Album review: Kelly Lee Owens (self titled)

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

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Welsh-born, London-based singer-songwriter Kelly Lee Owens makes music which is as much about mood as it is melody and rhythm, and she is consistently eloquent in all three arenas. Initially schooled as a producer, Lee Owens’ debut album continues in the tradition of the spectral, bliss-house acts that were initially prominent in the UK in mid-90s (artists such as One Dove, Death in Vegas and Beth Orton on her more dance-centric work). This is combined with a more singular, contemporary sound that can be compared to the output of current electronic music mavericks like Jessy Lanza, Ellen Allien and Jenny Hval (who features here), and with Lee Owens exploring a pastoral spirituality that excitingly throbs with machines.

Album opener ‘S.O’ begins delectably sweet, but is also widescreen and melancholic. It eventually introduces prominent tabla and a Hinduism thread that runs parallel to sounds from a British summer countryside. Birdsong and a babbling brook usher in ‘Arthur’ with Lee Owens’ breathy oohs-and-coos hovering above a skittish beat and increasingly tough bassline. It’s on the third song ‘Anxi.’ (an electro art-pop duet of sorts with Jenny Hval, that could also be described as the album’s most ‘vocal’ track), that Lee Owens begins to pull the album’s predominant dance influences out into the fore and moves them into the central part of the album.

‘Lucid’ continues to tighten the vocal precision heard in the mainly spoken ‘Anxi.’, with a central vocal from Lee Owens delivered in the style of the song’s title: clear-eyed and purposeful whilst alluring to something that is anything but – ‘different from the rest, somewhere in between’. The synthetic strings add to a beat-less, shifting tension. The sudden fade reveals a second-half house refrain that endorses Lee Owens’ love and appreciation for the genre – particularly when paired with her heavenly, multi-layered pop vocals and melody. Then there is the surprisingly subtle nod to electro-clash on the aggressively rigid and precise ‘Evolution’ that follows.

This adventurous sonic diversity never once disrupts the cohesiveness that Lee Owens effortlessly achieves from the get-go, and is possibly most felt in the record’s last three tracks. ‘The colour, the beauty, the motion’ boldly intones the artist on ‘CBM’ over a muted Moroder synth chug, which is one of the most assertive and robust dance tracks here. ‘Keep Walking’, an easy highlight, is an unexpected torch song. It’s sparse and lonely, narcotically bleary, with vocals that recollect girl-group nostalgic tragic ends. Redemption and closure seem to follow with the nearly 10-minute, meditative sitar trance, ‘8’.

With so much to offer here, Kelly Lee Owens has delivered a disarmingly intimate debut album that is as wondrously physical as it is cerebral, and which succeeds in being one of the most impressive and interesting I’ve heard this year so far.