Reviews by C and D (Arthur No. 16/July 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 16 (July 2005)

REVIEWS BY C and D

Sleater-Kinney
The Woods
(Sub Pop)
D: Before we begin, I would like to say that today I am in the mood to rock.
C: Well, my friend, you have come to the right place.
D: [first song starts, D leaps out of chair immediately] Is this one of those Japanese bands? With a girl?!? Who is this singing?
C: That woman is not a girl—she could show you a thing or two. [dramatic pause] It’s Sleater-Kinney, produced by Dave Fridmann.
D: [Jaw hits floor] Really?!? SLEATER-KINNEY?????!!!!???? Fuck, man! [shakes head] This is a MAJOR statement of psychedelic riot woman super-rock power! Rock ‘n roll album of the year! God DAMN!!!!
D: I know. Maybe the decade. Superfuzz-heavy in the Northwest tradition of Blue Cheer-Nirvana-Mudhoney, expansive like Neil Young with Crazy Hors…Hendrix… Built to Spill? There’s stuff on here that is out as Comets on Fire, possible even further. Who’s going to top this? Absolutely gigantic sounds…amps out of the red and into the black… a 14-minute song at the end that goes as far out as Comets On Fire, even into Les Rallizes Denudes and Ash Ra Tempel territory…
D: I have to admit I would never have thought these three women would make a record that’s this relentlessly face-melting.
C: I don’t know if they’d thought it possible either. There’s some precedent in Babes of Toyland, or early Hole, maybe, but this is just so much further… Well, I’m not sure that they’d call it psychedelic but it’s definitely psychoactive in an urgent kind of way.
D: [musing] There’s a bit of Jefferson Airplane in here, that’s for sure.
C: There’s a structure to everything but there are these void spaces, too. And then there are straight songs too, which rock in this tight, urgent way and then blow into something else via a drum charge or a panned guitar solo or I don’t know what. I know I’m going Beavis here but I don’t know how to [clears throat] …ahem… properly articulate the sensations I am feeling as I listen to this album. For a long time I didn’t like Corin Tucker’s voice, but here? It’s like this is the setting it’s always been looking for.
D: And that’s some hotshit drumming for sure.
C: [dancing] I can’t believe it, but seriously, one must acknowledge what is happening here. This is higher than High on Fire. They are Queens of a more stoned Age!
D: An unheard of power monster, that singlehandedly, forever eradicates the notion that women have no balls.
C: [Gives puzzled look at D, then continues] I cannot account for what I am hearing. Cannot assimilate. How did this happen? Seriously. It’s a lidflipper, a real wig-frier. Can you name another band that seven albums into their career, supernovaed into this kind of territory? This is so rare. It reminds me of something that Michael Moorcock was saying the other day: “In the ‘60s, Dylan, Beatles, Beefheart et al. were all thinking on their feet, if they were thinking at all. While Dylan remained a Guthrie sound-a-like he had no real credibility (although he did bring Guthrie a wider audience, I’d guess). As Dylan dumped the Guthrie cloak, especially when he went electric, he gained authenticity. The less like Buddy Holly the Beatles sounded, the better they got. Eventually, you went into a studio not knowing what you’d come out with.” I think that may be what’s happened here with Sleater-Kinney. Maybe this record just happened. Maybe we are witnessing the joy of unplanned, no-thinking, no-rules spontaneous creativity, of these three amazing women following and trusting their muse, confident in their abilities and each other to give it a trust that most other artists cower from giving these days? In any event, it’s an extraordinary creative breakthrough record made at precisely the right time by artists working at the peak of their collective rock power. That they are women in a stupid, male-centric culture doing this makes the whole thing even more important and inspirational. I want to go door-to-door like an evangelist for this record: “Hey sisters and brothers, have you heard the Good News?” But the old doors don’t exist after this album. They’ve all been blown open.
D: Word to your moms, Sleater-Kinney drop bombs.

Oneida
The Wedding
(Jagjaguwar)
C: New one from New York underground trance/art-rockers Oneida: a favorite around the Arthur offices for years now.
D: [Listening to “The Eiger”] They’re using strings?!?
C: Yes! This sounds amazing. The songs are catchier, there’s more dynamics in the structure, the arrangements are more varied. And the production is just nuts. This is another huge artistic breakthrough. Damn…
D: Something is in the air… Something good. A new scent.
C: Shit! Listen to how the keys get sucked out of the soundfield [on “Lavender”]… Listen to the almost-Espers psych-folk that is “Run Through My Hair.” “High Life” is an optimistic vocal over a total Kraftwerk/Cluster/La Dusseldorf electronic bed that changes into something more organic… “Did I Die” is like Wolf Eyes without the noise, [chuckles] whatever that means. Wow. I can’t believe this album…
D: It’s true, it’s beautiful.
C: Listen to how massive the drums are on “Spirits” and “Heavenly Choir,” and how majestic the guitar is. These are their “Kashmir”’s, their “When the Levee Breaks,” and this album is their Physical Graffiti…
D: We are in the presence of genius, manifesting itself.

Angels of Light
The Angels of Light Sing “Other People”
(Young God)
D: Who is this? It sounds like Johnny Cash with the Up With People choir or the Beach Boys singing backup.
C: It’s the new album by Angels of Light. You know, Michael Gira from Swans’ new band. Well, if you can be on “new” when you’re on your fourth album.
D: The most brutal, dealing-with-ultimate-things band ever?
C: None other. He moved away from that a while ago, but this one is sort of the moment when it all comes together for him. [listening to “Destroyer”] Listen to how amazing this: is that a mellotron, or strings? [Skipping through the record] And glockenspiels? Shit! This whole record is soaked in the most resplendent bittersweet textures, never getting sappy or fruity or corny in any way. Not an easy thing to do, for anyone. And for it to come from the man who wrote “Raping a Slave”? Fuck…
D: [smiling beatifically] I am shocked, once again, in a pleasantly happy way. He’s aging well, into something elegant and striking in his own way. Kinda like Nick Cave.
C: It is really beautiful, and represents the third risky, radical creative breakthrough THAT SUCCEEDS we’ve heard this session. So exciting to be in the presence of artists when they’re going for it like this.

Boredoms
Seadrum/House of Sun
(Vice)
C: And now…would you believe…? NEW BOREDOMS! Yoshimi sings a capella…and then this…[wave of drums crashes in]
D: [musing] We appear to be living in magical times.
C: 45 minutes, two tracks, completely different from each other. It says one thing: “Fuck off (in a good way). We are Boredoms. And we cannot be denied. We will now share this with you.”
D: Please place this on infinite repeat while I unclog every stuck nerve ending in my elderly body. Music…music…music…Boredoms… Boredoms… is…life.

Brain Donor
Brain Donor
(MisterE/Revolver)
D: I don’t whether to pump my fist in the air or punch myself in the face.
C: Who would have guessed that Julian Cope would be making this sort of rubber-burning rock’n’roll what, 25 years down the line?
D: His head is out on the highway. And he’s stuck in sixth gear.
C: Julian calls them a stupor group. Doggen, the guitarist, plays in Spiritualized, as does drummer Kevlar. They wear neon facepaint and have empty thought balloons over their heads. They’re like the Rutles version of the Stooges: songs that are just as good, with better lyrics. Dig the song titles: “My Pagan Ass,” “Shaman U.F.O.”
D: [shimmying] My pagan ass! My pagan ass!
C: This is a compilation CD, selections from the Brain Donor’s two previous discs that were only released in the UK. Now America can welcome Brain Donor with open heads.
D: If these gentlemen are really donating their brains, I need to go to the brain bank and get one.

Turbonegro
The ResErection DVD
(MVD)
D: Aha, Turbonegro! “IT’S DEATH TIME!” They ARE rock ‘n roll! In the gay sailor style of Norway!
C: I will explain D’s outburst of Turbonegroist passion to the gentle readers of Arthur.
D: [muttering] So arrogant!
C: I heard that, D. And I will remember. Oh yes. I will remember.
D: [muttering] So smug!
C: Shut up and let me do the thing that needs to be done. [to tape recorder] This is Turbonegro’s Some Kind of Monster, the story of “how the bandmobile went off the road in 1998,” it says here, and what happened next. Could Hank von Helvete recover from heroin addiction and other assorted mental problems and don the black cape and Alice Cooper makeup again? Could the Absolut-guzzling band of self-professed “death punk” godfathers successfully re-buddy after four years apart? Would anyone care? Would—
D: OF COURSE PEOPLE CARE! This is Turbonegro! [singing] “Whoa-oh-oh/I’ve got ERECTION!”
C: The other difference between Turbonegro and Metallica is that Turbonegro seem quite comfortable being gay. I do not know if they are actually gay, but they play a gay band onstage and on camera with a great deal of affection and commitment and sense of humor. Fear of a Gay Planet is the general concept.
D: [Watching Hank show off a vat of cod liver oil outside the local maritime museum where he worked for a couple of summers.] Look at this! This is better than A Mighty Wind!
C: We visit Hank’s seaside sanctuary, where he lived for four years, rebuilding his life. “The only thing that kept me alive were my grandparents and my belief in God,” he says, then compares himself to Napoleon in exile: “I was supposed to be emperor of Europe, but I’m kept prisoner of reality.” We do not know if he is joking, which is how the entire film is, it’s as outrageously straight-faced as comic atrocities like Alan Partridge or The Office or League of Gentlemen or—I’m feeling generous—Neil Hamburger in his most sublimely awful, banal moments. That kind of rare, supergenius thing. I don’t know if I’m doing it justice…? [looking on screen] But Hank is now showing us around his hometown: “Let’s stroll in the realm of dry fish…”
D: I still think they based their entire sound on the Dictators!
C: Ha! You’re right! Hank’s real stage name should be Gruesome Dick Manitoba.
D: They are like the Hives’ evil reverse twins.
C: The Hives give 1000% every time, but as Happy Tom says here, Turbonegro give 50, maybe 60 percent. The interviewer asks if they may get 80% this time? “I don’t think that’s ever happened,” says Tom.
D: It’s a cracker! A classic! [Thinks hard.] It’s This Is Spinal Tap—by Chris Morris!!!

BBQ
Tie Your Noose
(Bomp!)
C: Now here’s a one-man garage band, do it and doing it well. Makes the two-piece garage band seem passé.
D: Does that mean he practices in a one-car garage?
C: Fire up the grill, this is a fatback slab of that raunchy, rib-rocking goodness. It’s like Bob Log III and Doo Rag in one.
D: Yes, in one big barbecue pit! Which he probably dug out behind his garage.
C: “Don’t Hold Out On Me” is the hit.
D: I think it sounds like someone singing the Hives in the shower. Really, it’s that good.
C: Nice to see such a fine release on the Bomp! imprint, furthering the cause of Bomp! honcho Greg Shaw, may he rock in peace.

Radar Bros.
The Fallen Leaf Pages
(Merge)
C: One of Los Angeles’ subtle treasures, and group that explains the pastoral side to LA that only residents really know about. This music has a calming, benign presence.
D: It gives me the feeling I get from “Dear Prudence.” Or my very favorite song, “Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman.
C: The Radars absolutely own this gentle shuffle tempo. But I think they’d loan it out to anyone who wanted it. Although sometimes the lyrics are darker than you’d expect…
D: I believe he just sang, “I am the stable in which the ass has laid his manure.”
C: Walk, don’t run to pick this up. Or better yet, lope.
D: Yes, amble on.
C: There is something about this that puts me in the mindset of lightning bugs in a jar. And the most wistful of Muppets songs. You can always count on Jim Putnam to take one great whistling solo per album, and he comes through here again.
D: This truly Floyd-ian, I mean Mettle-era Floyd. The dreaminess of it, it’s positively molassesfying.
C: David Gilmour is on the phone, says the Floyd is playing the Pyramids again, and will the Radars kindly open? Could happen.
D: Should happen.

Lee Perry
I Am the Upsetter four-cd boxset
(Trojan/Sanctuary)
D: “Satan is public enemy number one.” You know, this may be my favorite music have to do with organized religion.
C: Sweet soul singing by Max Romeo. The production on these… it’s like all these sounds aren’t allowed to exist anymore, I can’t imagine a contemporary producer getting anywhere near this. Anyways, since Lee Perry was rediscovered about ten years ago, there’ve been a lot of re-releases and vaultpilations…including the Arkology three-disk set which was a big hit with a lot of people. But this is really special—it’s digestible, it’s got all the great shit on it, it covers everything from the obvious Bob Marley and the Wailers stuff to cuts even dedicated Scratch diggers may never have heard before—like “All Over” by Eccols & Neville, which is actually Clancy Eccols and Bunny Wailer. Spans 1968 to 1978, so much went by, the world changed so much. So many artists went from next-level to the pits, but Lee Perry maintained this wonderful, playful energy…
D: I am a great admirer of the well-played unison horn line.
C: [listening to “Black Panta”] I mean what’s going on here? There is a spatial distance in dub music, a relationship between the listener and the music that’s just completely, profoundly different from any other kind of music.
D: It’s like growing a third ear from the center of your forehead.
C: Seeing a stretch of the color spectrum that you’d never been shown before. I love that there are all these skank songs on here. [Looking sternly at D.] Ahem. The ORIGINAL meaning of skank, which just means Lee is gonna scratch a certain rhythm that’s gonna make you dance the Jamaican version of the funky chicken…
D: [with eyes closed] The echo makes the music sound like it’s talking to itself. For someone who uses so much delay, he certainly was on time.
C: I always thought Lee Perry’s physique, short and lean, so much finely toned power in his arms, was represented in his music. I always think of him as the producer, working the board, making compact energetic music. Totally dynamic. Full presence, just infusing everything. All sides of him are there: the playful side, the mischievous side, the judgmental side, the father side where he puts his child in there, crying. Wailing. Pleading. And mixing that in to a song that says “for god’s sake give more justice to the people”? Amazing.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
Worn Copy
(Paw Tracks)
C: [listening to opening instrumental] This sounds like one of those cheap John Carpenter scores, recorded underwater. In the wrong kind of water.
D: Cheese is not a virtue, except in certain hands.
C: These are not the right hands. [listening to “Jules Lost His Jewels”] Although…you know, some of this is actually pretty catchy. If only Mr. low-budget Wings here weren’t so stuck on recording underwater with such tragically awful sounding instruments.
D: So judgmental, you are. I think this might be a grower not a shower. [grabbing the CD out of the player] I will examine it more at home and report back next issue!

Animal Collective and Vashti Bunyan
Prospect Hummer EP
(Fat Cat)
C: Playful, rules-less, suffused with love…. Vashti and the AC boys harmonizing on these quiet little melodies… Whistles and phased waves of glowing acoustic guitars and… Is that a steel drum? Whoa. These guys are on such a hot streak right now. So wonderful to hear Vashti’s voice again, last year’s duet with Devendra wasn’t enough. This is a wower. You could play it for anyone: children, grandparents, sullen teenagers even…
D: [listening to title track] I think the oompa-loomas are coming.
C: Unbelievable dub-like production—there’s a real unique sense of space and place here too. Where do these people live? Somewhere in Sweden, Lee Perry awakens from his slumber…
D: [blissed out] It’s womblike. Feels like coming home from the greatest picnic ever.

Colleen
The Golden Morning Breaks
(The Leaf Label)
C: …And this is what it feels like when you’re in REM sleep, later. Music in miniature.
D: Mini-minimalism. Beatless.
C: So still. Satieists. A phased, handcranked music box. If a Joesph Cornell box had a sound… Wind chimes, plucked guitar figures.
D: Very cinematic. Makes me think of Bjork, Kubrick, City of Lost Children, Jeunet/Caro.
C: Colleen are (is?) Aphex Twin’s ambient grandchildren. Like Eno was for a while, Aphex Twin is no longer a man, he’s an adjective.
D: This is what I always hoped ambient music would sound like. Don’t throw the baby out with analog bubblebathwater!
C: … [pauses] Can I have some of whatever it is that you are on?

The Geto Boys
The Foundation
(Rap-A-Lot)
D: Who is this?
C: You know who this is.
D: The Geto Boys! Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill, together forever. Unless my mind is playing tricks on me, which is has been known to do.
C: You were right the first time, D. You may now take off the blindfold.
D: After all these years, they certainly are keeping it gangsta.
C: And yet it’s soul music. From the soul, of the soul, and the slower songs on here are actually sweet soul music.
D: You know, when I’m feeling homicidal, this music calms me down.
C: I appreciate that. More than you know.
D: Well if I didn’t know, now I know!

Neil Hamburger
Great Moments at Di Presa’s Pizza House
(Drag City)
C: On the other hand, when I’m feeling suicidal…I think of Neil Hamburger, self-proclaimed “TV comic” and “American funnyman.” [Listens to CD for a few minutes.] Well, this is a new low. Which is what you catch yourself thinking every time there’s a new Neil Hamburger album, but by now it’s clear that there is no bottom.
D: What is this? [to stereo] Tell some jokes already!
C: Heckling a CD is not the same as heckling a performer, unfortunately. One thing you can say about Neil Hamburger is he’s remarkably consistent. No matter where he plays—an expat nightclub in Malaysia, a greyhound racing park in Tempe, Arizona, a pipe organ-equipped pizza parlor in Northern California—he’s always just terrible, just desperately unfunny. You know what you’re getting with Neil Hamburger. The only surprise is how much worse he’s managed to get since the last time you heard him.

Yellow Pills: Refill
(Numero Group)
C: 33 power-pop 45s by super-obscure one-shot artists, compiled with mindblowing meticulousness and liner note cleverness by an obvious labor-of-lover: this guy Jordan Oaks, who used to do a zine called Yellow Pills. I gotta cop to it, I never heard of the zine, never heard any of these songs.
D: Man! A lot of these really should have been hits. Especially the Toms? As Dr. John and the Meters would say, They were in the wrong place.
C: This drawing of Jon Brion is incredible, when he was like 14 and a member of a band called The Bats.
D: I don’t know about this one…
C: If you don’t like one song, another will be along in two minutes. You’ll be able to find a seat on one of them. [pauses] You know D, we’ve received a lot of letters asking why we are called C & D…
D: We choose to remain anonymous.
C: I bet these bands didn’t want to be anonymous.
D: Well… life’s like that, sometimes.

The Ponys
Celebration Castle
(In the Red)
D: Must be The Ponys. Cuz it sounds like Voidoids and Television.
C: Yep. Less Hellish than before, though, I think.
D: [listening to the chorus of “Glass Conversation”] Now they are rocking!
C: And check out this guitar sound. It doesn’t matter what they play on their solos—although what he’s playing is cool—the sounds they are getting are enough for me. Yes! The solo on “Discoteca” is really simple but it SOUNDS wonderful. That’s like their second signature, after the dude’s voice. [listening to “Today”] Wow this goes into a blues thing in the middle, very cool. No wonder they were on that Junior Kimbrough tribute record, it’s all making sense now.
D: [philosophical] This is more like the first album than the first one was… [listening to “We Shot This World,” shaking head like a tumbler.] The difficult second album is not so difficult for the Ponys!
C: Our little Ponys have all grown up.

Spoon
Gimme Fiction
(Merge)
D: Sounds like the Kinks in a troubled mood.
C: But look they pull out a chorus—a melody like what the Walkmen wish they could do, and I don’t mean to damn with faint praise there.
D: Great album opener.
C: It’s like they’re gonna confront the Kinks Klone critique head-on and then go from there… This is their best shit ever, and their shit has always been fresh. The songs are better put together… listen to the counter-melodies and harmonies… even strings… Like the Left Banke, except not so fussy, or even SF Sorrow-era Pretty Things… Tight psychedelic-tinged upbeat soul rock. This song [“I Turn My Camera On”] is total disco! When he does falsetto, he sounds like what Beck tries to do. If they has strings swoop in we’d have Chic…
D: Maybe they’re saving that for the next album, which I am already eagerly awaiting.
D: [listening to “My Mathematical Mind”] Another cinematic record. There is a hint of John Barry in the air. I picture Oliver Reed in 1965 on the prowl, on the way to a party, or the scene of a crime, whichever he reaches first. Americans are making great English music again!

Weird War
Illuminated by the Light
(Drag City)
C: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Weird Warlord Ian Svenonius is an Arthur contributor.
D: That guitar tone sounds straight from a robot’s butt. Is he playing one of those keyboard guitar things?
C: It’s called a keytar.
D: I don’t know if I can take anyone playing a keytar seriously. I believe this is supposed to be funky but it does not swing.
C: Svenonius output always divides the crowd. I dig some of this album, but the real undeniable gemwork here is the album art, which is like a Neapolitan version of what Pedro Bell used to draw for Funkadelic LPs.
D: Yes, keep the great artwork, but maybe they should head in a different direction musically.
C: I’ve heard they’re going to do a Grateful Dead tribute called Weir War.
D: …
C: Sorry.

Death in Vegas
Satan’s Circus
(Drone)
D: New Death in Vegas? Excellent! That song with Hope Sandoval and the Indian violinist on the last album was a high point global civilization.
C: No guest vocalist this time.
D: It’s very krautrockian. And Human League. And Gary Numan, the guy that we all hated, because he had bad teeth… always trying to combine the robotic and emotive. He had that pretentious super-serious look mixed with looking like a yuppie. It was bound to fail. Now he’s a cult hero. Just goes to show that every shit you throw against the wall might come down as gold. Write that down!
C: [Writing it down] Very Cluster. And the second track here…listen to this…
D: THEY ARE COVERING KRAFTWERK’S ‘TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS’!?! Unbelievable! That’s balls!
C: These guys have got to be total stoners. They are just fucking around, having fun. You can hear how much they’re digging this.
D: Roedelius, Harmonia, all those guys… I can hear this being played in a German countryside on a nice Sunday afternoon. Very evocative, simplistic—I love it. There’s a track called “Heil Xanax”? Another one called “Sons of Rother”? I give up. They are the victors.
C: The record is so committed to the style.
D: To me, this could be played in a stadium. “Reigen” is a German word for the old-world, Middle Ages a come-together, a joyous come together where you dance around the maypole, so there’s a Wicker Man aspect to it. This shows insane respect and love for a very specific genre. They are saying, Excuse us while we pay tribute to our love.

Josephine Foster
Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
(Locust Music)
C: Speaking of Wicker Man.
D: Speaking of Jefferson Airplane.
C: Speaking of genius.
D: Speaking of…speechless.
C: She’s been in Arthur before, but… Damn. This is my favorite work yet by one of my favorite voices in the world. Her most conventional songwriting, really, with fantastic arrangements and playing. All by Josephine herself. It’s not harsh like Born Heller could be, not as histrionic as last year’s Supposed album was… I think people will now find out what the big deal is…
D: So many big deals right now, most of them female!
C: I know. Feels like a new dawning, a new birthing, a new burst of feminine energy is going on, doesn’t it?
D: Yes.
C: I can’t wait to hear what happens next…

John Adamian on COLLEEN (Arthur No. 20, Jan 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 20 (Jan. 2006)

UNDER A BLANKET
Amidst the culled samples and loops of antique instruments, where in Colleen‘s music is Cécile Schott?
By John Adamian

Lockstep rhythms, heartstring-tugging melodies and overpowering volume can bring the masses together. People talk a lot about the communal and social nature of music. The language we use reinforces the connection: “groups” and “bands” play in front of “crowds.” But some music—like that of the contemporary French musician/composer Cécile Schott, who records under the name Colleen—is intensely solitary, almost private. Not in the candid, pulled-from-the-diary, confessional sense, but in the I’m-alone-inside-my-head sense, holed up in a zone between headphones. In Colleen’s music there are no words, and computers and effects create its blanketing layered feel. It’s the music not of crowds, but of solitude.

My wife and I just had our first baby, Bernadette, a few months ago. Ever since we brought her home from the hospital we’ve had a lot of music in rotation in the CD changer. We’ve tried Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, Raymond Scott, some old Brill Building pop, Vashti Bunyan, the Louvin Brothers, Art Blakey, Gary Higgins, new ones by the Clientele and Broken Social Scene, and lots more. A few records seem to go over well with the baby—a field recording of the Bayaka, forest people from the Congo, a couple of Glenn Gould playing J. S. Bach, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, two Elizabethan composers, and two discs by Colleen. The mix is pretty seamless and it creates a sufficiently womblike atmosphere for all of us, but Bernadette clearly prefers the Colleen discs.

Colleen’s first record, 2003’s haunting Everyone Alive Wants Answers, is made up entirely of looped and layered samples, snippets culled from her record collection; the music creates a cocoon from thrums and furious zithers. It might seem simply soothing at first, until it casts its menacing shadow. For her followup, this year’s equally captivating The Golden Morning Breaks, Colleen (who had previously played only guitar) decided to abandon her method of using reprocessed bits from preexisting recordings and play all of the instruments (cello, music box, gamelan, melodica, etc.) herself. She then, in effect, sampled herself.

If Colleen’s music feels hermetic, of its own world, it’s not entirely coincidental. Schott, 29, works and performs almost exclusively by herself. She shuns collaboration. She doesn’t see herself as fitting in with a group of like-minded musicians. And maybe she’s right. Working for months at a stretch on her recordings, Schott prefers not to let anyone hear her work until she’s entirely through with it. She doesn’t exactly reveal herself through the music of Colleen as much as she loses herself in it. She avoids traditional touring because of the frantic travel from one city to the next without time to soak anything up.

I spoke with Schott twice by phone about her work, once from her apartment in Paris and once just after a soundcheck for a show at a London museum. As a part-time English teacher at a high school in the suburbs outside Paris, Schott isn’t a recluse, but she cultivates a kind of scholastic quietude that seems almost monastic, especially today. It was only relatively recently that Schott’s pupils and colleagues found out about her other career as a musician, and she didn’t necessarily want them to. “Somehow I felt that this wasn’t something that I wanted my pupils to know about,” she says. Schott appears inclined to maintain a distance between herself and the world. Even her stage name seems to be another buffering layer, but she says it’s more elaborate than that.

“Basically I have a problem with words in music. I think it’s hard to have good lyrics and sing them meaningfully. I have the same problem with song titles and even band names. I’ve always found it embarrassing to have to find a name, and I wouldn’t want to use my own name because I think it’s quite boring, and so I wanted something simple. I had this phonetics dictionary—I knew the name Colleen, so I’m not actually referring to the names of people, but the noun, the Irish word meaning ‘young girl,’ like the Scottish word ‘lass.’ I like the look of the word and the sound. The name itself is full of curves with the C and the O, and there’s also repetition with the double L and the E, so I thought it kind of looked like my music. Also if you say it in French, colline is the word for hill. Again that sounded really nice, this image of natural curves.”

Natural curves sounds about right. Colleen’s music has a kind of organic undulating quality to it. It’s music that maps out a certain slow welling up, an ebb and flow, a liquid flux that requires time and patience to take in. Plucked on strings or tapped on chimes, gracefully simple patterns course, separate and reconnect. The elegance is in the unfolding.
With its music-box plinkings, plangent strings and percolating drones, Colleen’s work is often labeled as ambient, but she resists the tag. “I don’t really like the word ambient. Somehow it seems pejorative. Like you put it in the background, and it’s like a nice wash of sounds, and I don’t think my music is.” When asked how she imagines her ideal fans listening to her music, Schott replies: “In bed under a blanket. Hopefully they wouldn’t fall asleep before the end of the record.”

On her website Schott writes enthusiastically about the five years she spent reading Marcel Proust’s A la Rechere du Temps Perdu, the enormous cookies-and-memories work commonly known in English as A Remembrance of Things Past. Proust, who famously holed up in his bedroom to finish his novel, was pretty fond of his personal time, too. The book starts with an extended meditation about lying awake in bed. It’s something Schott can relate to.

“Being alone in your room, listening to music in your bed, you have to have time for that. I have a feeling at the moment that time is the most precious commodity, and that everyone is running around, myself included. I think to listen to my music, you definitely need lots of time, and the bedroom thing, listening on your own, is kind of a symbol of having to find time in your own life to do this sort of thing.”

Schott relishes free time not for indolence or leisure, but because she’s trying to accomplish so much. Now, as she begins work on her third record, Schott has set a few humble goals for herself. She’s teaching herself piano, studying a bit of music theory, taking up the clarinet and planning to begin lessons on the viola de gamba, a 17th century ancestor of the cello.

We have the eclecticism of the lending libraries of Paris to thank for Colleen’s hypnotic music. Born and raised in Montargis, a small town south of Paris, Schott came to music relatively late. “I had no musical background whatsoever. My parents weren’t really into music.” In high school she played guitar in what she describes as a noise-pop band. She then studied English at the university in Dijon, before going off to England for two years, where she worked odd jobs in Winchester, Manchester and Liverpool. In 1999 Schott came to Paris to get her teaching certificate, and there she started exploring the vast musical holdings at the city’s libraries. There she discovered the music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland (“I just liked the idea of guys playing the lute,” she says), the tumbling glassy phrasing of the West African kora, the clangor of Indonesian gamelan, the freedom of jazz and other music whose spirit infuses her work (though she shied away from using the material as a musical source because she felt she couldn’t improve on it). The transition from guitar player to sample cobbler and back to performer on exotic and rare instruments was a roundabout one.

“It was a long development,” she says. “After I stopped playing in this noisy pop band, I got a four-track tape recorder and tried to make stuff on my own, but I had nothing other than a guitar. I would bang on things. I would definitely try to make ‘experimental music’ with just the guitar and not even one single pedal, so it was really hard, and I got really discouraged.”
Then a friend gave her a computer with some music-editing software, and Schott had a revelation listening to the extensive stacks of music she’d borrowed from the libraries. “I thought, that’s what I need to create my music from other people’s music, but it’s going to be mine, and I’m going to be independent, and I won’t have any problems with gear, and it’s going to be easy. All I need is CDs, and all I need to do is look for the sounds and assemble them.'”

Sounds easy enough. And it’s a familiar line of thought for just about anyone with a musical idea in their head, a CD collection and a computer. But Schott did it.

On Everyone Alive Wants Answers, insect sounds flutter in the background while what sounds like the superhuman hammering of a dulcimer floats by. An arterial pulse churns behind the sound of a child’s voice further buried under a wisp of bowed strings. “Babies” sounds like the inside of a giant wind chime. Airy skeletal samples are gathered into cycling patterns on “Your Heart on Your Sleeve.” A marching, Sun-Ra-worthy boinging Moog sound peoples “Long Live Mice in the Metro.” Sounds emerge and recede.

“I’m okay with things sounding a bit—’Oh where is this coming from?’ Maybe it gives you the feeling of some natural thing rising,” says Schott. There’s no singing, no drums. But the songs, many of which clock in at under four minutes, have a subtle rhythm and hummable melody.

The success of her computer-pastiche music created a new challenge for Schott: how to make her music for a live audience. Initially, Colleen embraced the switch from sampling records to generating her own sounds using acoustic instruments (the technique she used on The Golden Morning Breaks) because she didn’t want to be a laptop auteur. Not on stage at least.

“I’ve actually never been able to perform the older material,” she admits. “I decided to go back to playing instruments because I wanted to do live shows, but I didn’t want to bring a laptop. Originally the main impulse was because I thought there’s no way I’m going on stage with a computer and pretending to do something when I’m not. To me it’s more a question of whether the person is really doing something live, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. I’m not saying that all people who perform with laptops donít do anything, but from what I know, a lot of them are just going to press play and do a couple of things. But I wouldn’t call that a live show, and I’d be bored on stage if I had to do it.”

Despite the drastic change in approach between her first and second recordings, the results are surprisingly similar, and they demonstrate a single-minded vision working its way through both efforts. With Colleen playing all of the instruments herself, on The Golden Morning Breaks (which takes its name from a Dowland piece) the music gained a warm glow. In addition to cello and guitar, Colleen’s instrumental arsenal grew to include toy gamelan and a rare instrument called a glass harmonican. “It’s not mine, unfortunately,” says Schott. “It belongs to a friend of mine who used to sell antiques. He used to sell mechanical instruments mostly. This isn’t mechanical. It’s kind of like a glockenspiel, but it has glass blades and some small beaters made of tortoise shell and cork at the end. It’s from the early 19th century, just amazing.”

Now, if she wants to do a gig, she just has to figure out how to lug her gear. “I do everything on my own, so mostly I need a cello and a guitar, and now I have a clarinet, and I have a melodica. I have music boxes. If I play and someone can help me carry stuff, then I try to bring some more stuff. I have guitar pedals. Mainly sampling pedals, and I sample myself live, that’s basically how it works.”

Schott stresses that she’s not a specialist in any of the subjects that fascinate her, whether it’s baroque musical practice, composer Pauline Oliveros’s idea of Deep Listening, music theory, or the non-Western traditions that inspire her. Intuition characterizes Schott’s mode of composition. Sometimes spending months on a single track, Colleen works and composes in a kind of isolation, but solitude allows for practice and study as well.

“It’s not that I want to be a solo performer for the sake of being a solo performer, but I love learning things, and I would rather learn something and at first make pathetic sounds rather than leave it to someone who can do it better than me, because then it’s them and it’s not me; I’m the one who enjoys the pleasure of learning,” she says. “Also I do find it very hard to work with other people. Often in the world of music, people seem to expect it to be very natural and easy to collaborate, but I think that in any human interaction there’s going to be—not necessarily trouble, but compromise and adjusting to each other.”

For me, Colleen’s story brings on a nod of recognition and the spark of inspiration. Having played for years in a noisy-pop band, spent more than a decade trying to teach myself piano, gone back to school to study and perform non-Western music, wanting nothing more than vast stretches of days in which to read and practice, Schott’s attempt to carve out enough time to fuse all these threads sounds familiar. By making deep music from an eclectic record collection, tinkering with recorded loops of oneself, and insisting on the importance of solitude and study, Schott strikes me as being both a quiet revolutionary and entirely of the times. Maybe that’s why her music seems right at home in my life.