Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Year in Music: Colleen – A Flame My Love, A Frequency

A Flame My Love, A Frequency
(buy from Thrill Jockey; download or stream on Bandcamp; ok Spotify fine)

The struggle through limitation – or the forced stricture of self-imposing limitations – can produce great music and art. Look no further than budding songwriters making their most raw and intimate portraits via 4-track in a cabin somewheres; or Rick Rubin's career of forcing rich-celebrities-née-musicians out of their comfort zones to reinject honesty and authenticity as though it were a rare substance meted out by the universe in small doses early in one's life.

And yet – Colleen's particularly ascetic take on limitation stands apart in how it simultaneously defines her work, while also expanding its horizons – like how a pinprick of light can contain all of space and time. Nowhere is her exploration of the infinite more refined and pronounced than on A Flame My Love, A Frequency.

Her previous outing, 2015's Captain Of None pushed to the brink her use of medieval instrument viola da gamba (bonus points if you'd heard of it before that record) – by plucking, plonking, tapping, thrumming, and playing through an assemblage of effects, the largely-instrumental record had a narcotic, dub feel and a collagist ethos. 

Yet, after such an adventurous outing, she wiped the table clean – forgoing that instrument in favor of an analog synthesizer (Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano and Septavox) and delay pedal set-up that preserves some of the dub aesthetic while sounding completely of another universe. Opener "November" drops the listener straight into a music-box melody, a bit melancholy and halting, singular-sounding while preserving her unique sense of space and sound. It's entrance music to a world of Colleen's devising, elemental and pure, almost child-like.

"Separating" delivers you to that world – in this case, subaquatic, dripping tones provide a rippling ambiance that showcases delicate vocals before giving away to dappled, sunny synths that skip along the surface with a hushed, wordless chorus. It's a universe in miniature – almost classically revenant, but experimentally electronic in the way it plays with filtering, broken melodies, and effects to pull the listener further underwater. Warning: this track is all-consuming. Remember to breathe.

After the rhythmic workout of "Another World", which breathes needed air via a circular melody that eventually washes out, we enter "Winter Dawn", whose brittle march pierces the veil cast across the initial three tracks. Colleen's voice is near-crystalline here, intoning, "The world had nearly ended and the sky was blue. And I came home with a fistful of fear." There is a void, here, maybe an icy chasm – but there's also light being cast forward – I can't help but think things are always darkest just before the dawn, a stasis expressed brilliantly when the jigsaw melody pauses mid-flight near the track's end.

Things are a bit darker on the B-side. "Summer Night (Bat Song)" utilizes near-organ, droning sheets of sound to trap a childhood moment in a photograph of sound. There's yearning here, too – the sleepy, minimalist coda over which she sings, repeatedly, "Descending milky night..." while stretching and playing with the phrase – is as glorious as those soft moments when sleep approaches in darkness. 

"The Stars vs Creatures" carries forth the lunar feel – a descending, staircase of a melody again casts Colleen's vocals in starlight, this time relating a parable set in the natural world, all accelerating forward to an ascendant, double-time coda halfway through the song. "One Warm Spark" is another circuitous, effects-laden track to transport the listener to the abstract, earth-bound title track. Again, droning organ tones slowly bud into melody. Set atop the mix, the delineated vocals are healing, a balm & a promise, leaving the synths to slowly exit the atmosphere and tumble into space at sunset, a fairly jaw-dropping finalé if you've gotten your mind right.

I read a note from Colleen that referenced the making of this record, subsequent tour & attention, and stresses of travel combined to take a personal toll that would require self-care and attention in 2018 to recover and recharge. Sometimes it's tough to hear that from an artist – especially considering how we glamorize songwriters and creatives and expect them only to give, give, give until culture or society casts them away like husks. And yet, you can hear the life energy in  A Flame My Love, A Frequency – it's emotional undertow belies the simple surface of such a focused instrumental palette. Amazing, really, how such limitations can be seized to produce something so otherworldly and singular.


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