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Colleen, "A Flame My Love, A Frequency"

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cover imageCécile Schott has long been my absolute favorite kind of artist: the kind who thoughtfully and quietly pieces together wonderfully distinctive albums and tends to only surface when she has something new and intriguing to say.  As a result, being a Colleen fan has been a deliciously unpredictable slow-motion rollercoaster that has taken some expectation-subverting turns over the years: most artists who come right out of the gate with a sublime and timeless masterpiece like Everyone Alive Wants Answers would just keep revisiting that success with diminishing returns, but Schott has tirelessly kept moving forward with each new album.  That evolution reached a crescendo of sorts with 2015 vocal-centric Captain of None, shedding a lot of artifice to reveal a more intimate and direct incarnation of Colleen.  In some ways, this latest album continues that trajectory, but it also finds Schott setting her viola da gamba aside for a synthesizer.  Admittedly, I tend to shake my head sadly whenever someone makes a synth album these days, but Schott has managed to bend those electronics to her will rather than falling under their spell like so many others.

Thrill Jockey

Colleen's newly electronic-based aesthetic came about in something of an accidental way, as Schott originally picked up a synth with the modest intention of creating an additional rhythmic element for her viola da gamba-based work.  That experiment was not entirely successful, but proved to be fruitful enough to inspire the purchase of a second synth and led Schott into exploring what could be done with her signature viola da gamba taken out of the picture altogether.  On one level, that seems like a bit of a curiously self-sabotaging decision, as a significant part of Colleen's appeal and mystique has always been how hermetic, otherworldly, and anachronistic Schott's aesthetic can be.  A lot of Colleen albums feel like they could have been made by an impossibly wise and sad fairy tale princess confined to a tower, viewing the world exclusively through her unreachable window.  Making a synth-based album dispels a lot of that illusion and places Colleen quite squarely in 2017.  The fundamental Colleen-ness of Schott's vision cannot be so easily shaken off though and A Flame My Love favorably recalls the more primitive and intuitive outsider strangeness of private press New Age visionaries from decades past far more than it does anything happening now.  Also, since she started singing, one of the most transfixing elements of Schott's work has been the poetic and hushed confessional intimacy of her vocals.  The backdrop may have changed, but it still feels like Schott is attempting to share some kind of enigmatic secret, heartache, or ineffable revelation with me.

At times, Schott embraces her new electronic muse in a way that seems like a natural evolution from her previous work, such as "Summer Night (Bat Song)," which sounds like a dreamlike organ reverie that gently undulates, blurs, and shimmers like a lysergic medieval mass.  The closing title piece takes a similar approach, often sounding like a breathy, lilting melody sung over a simple backdrop of sustained accordion chords, though it has an unexpectedly free and amorphous structure.  Elsewhere, there are a handful of instrumentals where Schott is clearly experimenting with the strange and beautiful sounds she can wrest from her new synth/delay pedal combination.  To her credit, pieces like "Another World" and "One Warm Spark" already a display a unique and distinctive aesthetic of erratically pulsing, burbling, and churning arpeggios.  The best pieces, however, are simply the ones that transpose the structured, idiosyncratic "pop" aesthetic of Captain of None into electronic form.  The centerpiece of the album is "Winter Dawn," which creates a dense and vibrant polyrhythm of blooping pulses that builds to a haunting chorus where Schott’s words are trailed by ghostly afterimages.  "Separating" is similarly beguiling, as a spectrally lingering vocal melody languorously unfolds over a throbbing and hallucinatory fantasia of pulsing and liquid synth motifs.

As a whole, A Flame My Love is a fairly adventurous and strong album, but it feels more like an intriguing transitional album rather than a fresh masterpiece.  It certainly still sounds like a Colleen album and Schott handles her radical evolution with an impressive degree of nuance, elegance, and ingenuity: there are no real missteps to be found and I would be hard-pressed to identify any clear influences or artists who have recorded anything similar.  Unfortunately, past Colleen albums have yielded a number of pieces of absolutely transcendent and otherworldly beauty ("Everyone Alive Wants Answers," "Summer Water," etc.) and this album merely offers a few fine and hooky new songs.  For most artists, that would be ample cause for celebration, but Schott has historically set a very high bar for Colleen, making this is a very good album by a historically great artist.  That is not to say that Schott's vision has dulled at all, however: A Flame My Love documents kind of a necessary step towards adapting this project more towards live performances and touring.  Colleen has already recorded plenty of wonderfully elaborate, introspective bedroom-recorded dreamscapes, chamber pieces, and starkly lovely art-pop gems and none of that needed to be repeated.  With this album, Schott finds a way to maintain the soul of Colleen in a more muscular, accessible, and "just plug-in and play" way.  In that regard, A Flame My Love is unquestionably a success, but it is more of an enjoyable gateway to some of Schott's deeper work than a new high-water mark.




Last Updated on Monday, 06 November 2017 09:32  


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