Kelly Lee Owens' debut album is perfect balm for frazzled nerves

It is the time of the year when music pundits scramble together their top 10 lists - and part of the sadomasochistic pleasure is to catch the ones that nearly got away, albums that had fallen outside the radar upon release, the outliers.

First released in March, the debut by 28-year-old London-based Welsh native Kelly Lee Owens is one of these. Entirely self-written and produced, her minimalist techno-pop flits between the ethereal side of Grimes and the softer end of Krautrock, a genre-defying feat which eschews easy categorising.

Re-issued with three extra songs late last month, the record swirls with fluvial synths and bass-lines which weave in and out of your consciousness. It is no surprise to find out that Owens once worked in nursing homes and was an auxiliary nurse at a lung cancer ward at Christie's Cancer Specialist and Research Hospital in Manchester.

As she wrote in a column for a music blog: "Although music was always my first love, other passions of mine are medicine, science, biology and how it's possible to help and connect with people who were suffering in some way."

She imbibed This Is Your Brain On Music, a popular science text which argues that music is a by-product of evolution and that it is a barometer of one's cognitive, emotional and physical health. She also studied the Solfeggio frequencies, an ancient theory that claims that certain hertz can relieve emotion or lead to internal balance, a sonic acupuncture if you will.

This sounds Pollyanna in print, but the resulting songs work like perfect balm on frazzled nerves.

A techno ballad filled with birds and flowing water dedicated to the American avant-pop iconoclast Arthur Russell is wordless, but clearly takes inspiration from his ceaseless inspiration to always sidestep expectations.



    Kelly Lee Owens

    Smalltown Supersound

    4/5 Stars

"Lucid, lucid, don't you see it?" she chants on Lucid, which starts with dreamy strings then takes off on a psychedelic synth sojourn into outer-space. This segues into Evolution, a "stylo-mylo" techno doozie with stiletto-sharp beats, as she deadpans, as if an android, a series of mantras involving "revolution" and "evolution".

The marriage between ancient wisdom and future technology is also heard in CBM, the title of which takes after its lyric "colours, beauty and the motion", which describes the experience of astronauts during spaceflight while viewing the planet Earth from orbit. Pivoted on a loop of staccato beats, it mimics an escalating sense of disorientation which is buffered by a sample of Tibetan singing bowls.

In Anxi., she starts a dialogue with her heroine, Norwegian avant-garde musician Hval, by sampling her truncated proclamations: "Always failed the romantic/I did baroque badly... This is the narrative of reality."

Over it, Owens coos sweetly, if indecipherably, while layering oddly perky techno. It is danceable, but not quite in step. You move and look askance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2017, with the headline 'Songs to calm frazzled nerves'. Print Edition | Subscribe