Gary Raymond reviews the second album from DJ, producer, and songwriter Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song.
If you needed convincing that there is nothing cold about electronic music, nothing impersonal about it, then the new album from Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song, will leave you in no doubt that this type of sound can be just as intimate and warm, if not more so, than another “singer-songwriter” propped up on a stool with a few suspended sevenths and a cheap warble. If godfathers of electronica, Kraftwerk, played up to the automaton image, turning themselves in robotic conduits, man-machines, then Owens gives her music flesh and blood.
The soundscapes Owens has created, punctuated frequently with gliding pop melodies and airy vocals, have a circadian allure to them. The loops on tracks such as ‘Night’ and the beautifully energetic ‘Jeanette’ are precise, expertly put together, and always have a destination in sight. There are clear influences on display, most notably Johnny Greenwood, and she opens the album with a very successful instrumental cover of Radiohead’s ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ from the towering In Rainbows. It’s a confident start for what turns out to be a confident record. However, vocally Owens is much closer to acts like School of Seven Bells than Thom York’s paranoid android. There are also frequent pleasing trips that wouldn’t go amiss on a Four Tet record, and Owens has spoken at length about their influence. There is the bright sunshine reminiscent of those Tycho lens flares, music to drive fast on big empty roads on clear frosty days. She is also a friend and collaborator of Jon Hopkins, and that makes complete sense; the sound is almost familial to Hopkins’ Singularity. I’d say, to Owens’ credit, there are also moments of dream techno, and her journeys into the labyrinths of grooves and rhythms are very much reminiscent of Alex Willner’s The Field albums. Like The Fields, like Kraftwerk, you can get on these careering grooves and be happy to never get off.
Her determination to make this a record about who she is and where she’s from, is never less affecting than on ‘Jeanette’, a searing, beautiful, pulsating tribute to her ever-supporting grandmother. John Cale also makes a guest appearance on ‘Corner of My Sky’ reading his own poetry to an Owens soundscape that wouldn’t have gone amiss on Cale’s Music for a New Society (2016). Owens also shows she can write a killer riff, as with the exotic turns of ‘Flow’. The big swooping vocal gestures of ‘Melt’ and ‘L.I.N.E.’ may dominate and may be laid on just a little too thick for those finding real value in Owens’ techno sensibility, but Inner Song is an album with real bite.
You don’t need to know the background to respond to Inner Song’s warmth, but Owens has spoken about how driving through Snowdonia shaped the scale of the music. Wales is central, and it’s refreshing to hear such a bold, confident, and sonically accomplished electronic record emerging when so much in Wales is lo-fi, timid, and sometimes even meek. None of those things are necessarily a bad thing, but too much of it begins to sound like a deficit of ability rather than a headspace of the national psyche. Owens is not holding back, though, neither in ambition nor ability. Her vitality means she is comfortable sitting at the table of her peers, and this album establishes her peers quite clearly. That could be a criticism: listening to an album that draws so keenly on others can offer more distractions than escapes, but Inner Song wins because it is personal, because we are invited to go on a journey with Owens. Inner Song marks a considerable leap since her less accomplished but enjoyable eponymous debut from 2017, which, looking back, has all the hallmarks of a strong statement but less of the narrative. We may look back and see Inner Song as the record where Owens carved herself a bit of elbow room on that top table.
Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens is available now from Smalltown Supersound.
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Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.