Art Pop / Smalltown Supersound / April 29, 2022 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
Kelly Lee Owens’ two previous albums convincingly brought together electronic pop and club music (techno, in particular) somewhat like artists such as Robyn and Marie Davidson also have done recently. Indeed, like with their work, the strength of Owens’ music on those records is how it powerfully oscillates between great vocals and melodic elements, as well as raw club sounds. Very well-produced and featuring guest appearances from John Cale (of the Velvet Underground) and Jenny Hval, both her self-titled debut and its follow-up Inner Song are certainly solid additions to this great multi-genre.
Although one thing that I largely was missing from Owens’ music on those two albums was formal experimentation beyond the conventions of the electronic pop/club music-synthesis. For even though both albums sound great, they are for the most part oriented around its established compositional forms (i.e., club and melodic, pop-song structures). This is why LP.8 is an exciting release, as it sets aside the pop and club structures of the previous albums and instead moves into other kinds of sonic territories that generally take on more abstract forms (nicely reflected in the abstracted photo of Owens on the album cover, to be contrasted with the naturalist photos of her on the album covers of the two earlier records), thanks to different, and somewhat more open, compositional structures – including experiments with drone, industrial, ambient, vocal loops and spoken word. It is not that these elements were completely absent on the earlier records – particularly not on the first one, whose compositional structures feel somewhat less rigid compared to those on Inner Song – but whereas they played more of supporting roles on those, they have been put at the centre here. There are for example barely any conventional melodies or singing on LP.8 – as it rather synthesises the softness of Enya with the roughness of Throbbing Gristle (the two main sources of inspiration), through its abstracted sonic landscapes.
It does not feel like a long-shot to assume that the producer Lasse Marhaug had a finger in this – the Norwegian noise artist who more recently also has produced electronic art-pop albums by the likes of Jenny Hval (including her magnum opus Blood Bitch, from 2016). LP.8 was recorded with him in Oslo during the pandemic and one can certainly sense his presence – particularly, of course, on the rougher tracks, such as the concluding ‘Sonic 8’, where Owens performs spoken word and some singing over layers of noise and a thundering beat. It is a solid track, which effectively contrasts Owens’ voice with the harshness of the electronic sounds. Somewhat structurally similar, although with smoother sounds, is the album centrepiece ‘Anadlu’ (Welsh for ‘to breathe’), where a heavy beat and Owens’ spoken word are accompanied by lush drones throughout its eight-minute runtime. As the title alludes to, it has a nice, meditative quality to it.
But there are other kinds of tracks as well, which all oscillate between the smooth and harsh in different ways – including the great openers ‘Release’ and ‘Voice’, which both revolve around beats and vocal loops; ‘Olga’ and ‘Quickening’, which lean more towards the ambient; as well as ‘S.O (2)’ and ‘One’, which are the only tracks with more conventional vocals. They all sound great individually, although the main strength of the album as a whole is its formal diversity, thanks to its variety of compositions that all have departed from the kinds of sounds we have come to mainly associate Owens with. The only track that does not work for me is the long piano tune ‘Nana’, which feels somewhat scaled down and out of place in comparison with the slick electronics of the other ones.
This is an exciting album, precisely because of how it expands Owens’ sound from her earlier records. Although, with that said, I certainly hope that she will bring back the pop and club elements of her music on future records as well. Not just because they sound great on their own (the more conventional vocals on ‘S.O (2)’ and ‘One’ do, for instance, remind me of how great a singer she is) – but also because, as someone whose favourite kinds of music tend to be of the sorts that combine popular and experimental elements, I would be very curious to see Owens more distinctly bringing together her pop and club tunes with the experimentalism at work on this record (perhaps a bit like Marie Davidson on her great album Working Class Woman, from 2018). I certainly think that could turn into something very interesting. But, in the meantime, this is a welcome augmentation of an already great sonic profile that I hope will continue to expand on future releases.