Kelly Lee Owens, Sneaks using minimal music

Women dominate the pop charts. Even though you know many of these artists by just one name, they are all multi-hyphenates spreading their talents across the entire realm of entertainment. However, Indie music seems to push women toward strumming guitars and trying to be the next Joni Mitchell. Sneaks and Kelly Lee Owens are two artists who seem to eschew guitars all together and pursue using minimal music to ensure that their artistry stands well above everyone else.

 Welsh-born Kelly Lee Owens learned the music business from the ground up. Moving to London, Owens first worked for XL Recordings and spent her time in local record shops learning about all styles and genres of music. This education has paid off richly since she started working with producer Daniel Avery in 2012.

 Five years is a long time for a debut album to gestate, but first listen to Kelly Lee Owens reveals that each song is equal amounts song and pure atmosphere. Owens' cuts are gauzy, multi-layered electronic structures that resemble curtains on top of curtains reflecting and combining varying strains of the light outside. In true electronic fashion, Owens keeps most of the tracks danceable on waves of gentle propulsion.

 Owens' nearest comparison would be Bjork. However, where Bjork looks to thrill and shock her audience with alien textures, the songs of Owens, minus all their rich sonic effects and droning synths, could easily be simple strummed folk songs. The haunting "Lucid" turns on a dime from its optimistic verse to a bracing singsong chorus ("Lucid, lucid, don't you see.") Her lyrics are quiet and impressionistic, often just as much as part of the background as the music. However, when she carefully attaches them to one of her brilliant melodies, like on the breathy "Throwing Lines," their ambiguity speaks for whatever you want it to.

 Like Kelly Lee Owens, Washington D.C., native Eva Moolchan uses her minimalist tendencies to create music that is vastly different from anything out there today. Moolchan records as Sneaks, following in the footsteps of female punk like The Slits and Delta 5, as well as the danceable funk/punk of ESG. Moolchan seems mostly out for immediacy. Her hooks are indelible, even as her music shifts restlessly from her singing to spoken word pieces. Sneaks is always out to keep you guessing, even upon multiple listens.

 On her debut "Gymnastics," Moolchan brilliantly captured the fire hidden within the repetition of daily life (much like Young Marble Giants.) Her latest, "It's A Myth," is somehow less punky and more funky. "Tough Luck" best exemplifies a Sneaks track. The drum machine pulses, the bass guitar quickly races through establishing a simple riff, adorning it with plunging slides and expanding its palette using harmonics. Then Moolchan dryly vocalizes short, sharp sentences ("Boy being tough rocks/Girl being tough luck"), changing the words she chooses to accent or even repeat. The effect is hypnotic. This terse mix of rhythms and ideas feels far more dense than it really is. And as soon as you grow comfortable with it – one minute and 36 seconds later – it's over, now only waiting to be experienced again.

 However with Sneaks, her output is so abbreviated. There is no clicking the button to listen to the same cut again. Like The Minutemen or Minor Threat, the idea is that you must take the whole thing in again and again. Moolchan's message is the entire album as a free-form mixture of razor-cut ideas ("Hair Slick Back" needs to say very little to maintain its image of cool and confident) and relentless grooves (like when she adds the gurgling synth line to "Look Like That" and stretches the song length to an epic 3:17).

 Sneaks music is no gimmick. Travis Scott may employ the method of repeating the same lines over and over in his songs, but as the music changes behind him you are conscious that Scott is toying with you to make you notice. Moolchan's immediacy makes every song the equivalent of a long stare. She isolates these moments and makes you want to relive them again and again. At just a spartan 18 minutes, you can put this album on repeat and never truly know when it ends or begins – just like that long stare.

 

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