Review: Kelly Lee Owens, 'Kelly Lee Owens'
The London-Based Songwriter's Debut Album Splits The Difference Between Folk And Dance Music
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Kelly Lee Owens' self-titled debut is a folk-pop album – kind of like how Arthur Russell, a longtime hero of the singer/songwriter/producer for whom she names the collection's wonderful second track, is a folk-pop artist. That is, completely and not all. Its melodies are effortless, romantic and repetitive; its atmosphere replete with pastoral open spaces and the kind of spiritual longing at the heart of human intimacy. Like many of Russell's finest labors, the 28-year-old Welsh-born Londoner's album features the hallmarks of current dance-music culture — computer, synth and drum-machine textures (or their laptop plug-in variants), an omniscient club groove fueled by occasional bass blasts — yet sounds like the work of an old soul, filled with inner truths that people operating in music and technology often choose to bypass. Which is funny, because few intertwined human undertakings are older than emotion and the dance.
It says a lot about both today's club and singer-songwriter cultures that Owens' take is such an anomaly. Beyond the extraordinary figure of Bjork, the heart-on-sleeve work of Dani Siciliano, or Tracey Thorn's work in Everything But The Girl, it's hard to identify many artists who've successfully integrated a true lyrical experience (as opposed to just words, or party-starting exultations) and self-produced deep beats.
Owens, who wrote and produced the album (her gateway agents to club music, Daniel Avery and James "Ghost Culture" Greenwood, appear on one track), incorporates both of these worlds effortlessly. And she does so in a variety of sonic frameworks: She's as focused on the places where words bear utmost importance as where they need to evaporate into pure rhythm or drone.
Some of the album's best moments occur when emotion and groove intertwine, forming Owens' unmistakable point of view. "Throwing Lines" is an innocently moody pop-house track that glides on Owens' wordless vocal melody and rises alongside a chorus of nearly pure hope ("This could be bright again / This could be brighter..."). Or "Anxi.," an incredible collaboration with the Norwegian artist/singer Jenny Hval, on which the pair's voices play off each other, Hval chattering against the fourth wall in the background and Owens cooing another gorgeous chorus line ("Time was, foreseen / Nothing was happening").
At other times, the electronic mind-set reframes a more timeless vibe. The words of "Keep Walking," a ballad of sorts, inhabit a distant urban gaze, but the interaction of Owens' warm voice and the lo-fi symphonic background (organ, cursory drum-machine hi-hat) give it the feel of a faux Phil Spector production...or rather a styled, modern demo of one. Or there's "Arthur," an older track (originally self-released on vinyl in 2015, now on Bandcamp) that is, in many ways, one of the album's dog stars: an instrumental heavy with outdoor airs (a burning fire, a rainstorm), layers of Owens' voice as primary melody, another lo-fi hi-hat and a one-note cello figure that is the final breadcrumb back to Russell's work.
Arthur was a master of this kind inferred emotional gravity, and it's safe to say that at least some of that can be attributed to his nearly lifelong Buddhist practice. Owens also deeply harbors the teachings of core meditative beliefs — in interviews, whether prompted or not (I have no idea), she continually returns to discuss the experience of training to be a nurse in a Manchester cancer ward when she was younger, and that moment's lessons. I don't know if "8," the drone-centered, largely-instrumental piece that closes the album, is named as such because the number is the inverted symbol for infinity, but that would not be surprising. Amidst the deep bass, sitar-like sustains, thick synths, and faraway metallic chug, Owens, in her own words, "free-styled a little." Her improvised lyrics? "See it ... grow."