Top 10 Albums of the Year: #7

Colleen - Les Ondes Silencieuses (Leaf)
Cécile Schott's third release as Colleen finds her stripping the elements of her music to their barest essentials. Absent are any of the more obviously electronic or processed effects that crept into her previous work and the recording quality is distinctly more sharp at the edges, deep as a well. This is all so the individual instruments (and the individual notes and chords they produce) can command the listener's attention. These instruments include clarinet, crystal bells, spinet (similar to a harpsichord), classical guitar and viola da gamba, which is somewhere between a cello and viola with more strings. Now I actually didn't like this turn to spare instrumentation at first. I thought things sounded really bare compared to Colleen's earlier work. The more I listened though, the more each composition sort of bloomed in my head into this full sounding thing.
"This Place in Time" invites the listener in with its slow, patiently bowed chords. "Sea of Tranquility" and "Sun Against My Eyes" each pair classical guitar with clarinet. When light guitar strumming enters halfway through "Sea," it's surprising that such a relatively gentle touch can cause such a palpable sense of tension, a small but real thrill, while "Sun" floats along like the saddest first day of spring. "Echoes and Coral" stands out on the album if for no other reason than the fact that it's the only track that features (solely) crystal bells being played. Schott gives ample time for their delicate tones to ring out and fade, bringing to mind a clear, near-motionless tide pool. "Le Bateau" brings the album proper to its close (the Japanese edition has some wonderful, clear live takes of songs not recorded in the studio). Plucked guitar leads into a quietly menacing viola da gamba midsection, implying the rocking of the boat suggested in the song's title, the imminence of capsizing. But the song is led gracefully back into the guitar melody we started with, and the boat goes bobbing along. The album as a whole is shot through with a definite thread of melancholy, and if you're in a great mood Les Ondes Silencieuses might not be a bit of a downer. But the songs, to me, don't imply an artist wracked with depressing thoughts or a depressing life. Instead the songs speak of a serene personality, aware of and in tune with the transient nature her experiences. Not to get all philosophical or anything.
I've read in at least one, perhaps more than one place that the music of Colleen is slow to the extent that it requires too much devoted attention, or otherwise it fades to the background. This is kind of a bullshit pan on music that's really exceptionally crafted. These songs are meant to stop the listener in their tracks. They don't beg for attention, but the really deserve it. Is it such a bad thing to actually listen closely to a song? To take in the richness of a tone wholly? And it seems like the fact that silence exists on this album might freak people out (I mean, it's in the title). But I shouldn't have to defend non-existent attacks on Colleen's music, because it speaks for itself and is perfect as it is. Those who enjoy some of the more popular indie-neo-classical-whatever composers around (Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sylvain Chauveau) need to listen to this. A pure, unpretentiously beautiful (and heinously overlooked) album.

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