Colleen, "The Tunnel and the Clearing"
It has been nearly four years since the last Colleen album, which is certainly not the first lengthy gap in C√©cile Schott's wonderful discography, but she definitely seemed to be thriving and experiencing a creative renaissance since signing to Thrill Jockey. As it turns out, that hiatus was far from intentional, as Schott has been plagued by quite an impressive run of personal misfortunes and upheavals since A Flame My Love, A Frequency was released (some of which certainly inform the album's searching lyrical themes). While I do not subscribe to the "suffering inspires great art" myth, I do think the long break between albums allowed Schott enough time, solitude, and introspection to make The Tunnel and the Clearing far more of a leap forward than it may have been otherwise. It does share its predecessor's conspicuous lack of viola de gamba though, as Schott remains committed to exploring the potential of just a simple synthesizer and a few well-chosen pedals. That similarity aside, this latest opus sounds completely different than any other Colleen album, as it feels like Schott just invented her own incredibly cool strain of organ-driven hypnagogic pop (and one fitfully enlivened by delightful Latin rhythms, no less). In fact, I briefly wondered if she had somehow managed to customize a synthesizer to be played with a bow. This is unsurprisingly yet another excellent Colleen album.
For this latest release, Schott set aside her Critter and Guitari synths and opted for the surprisingly small and inexpensive Yamaha Reface YC, which she primarily uses to mimic an organ. While that warmer tone certainly suits Schott's hushed and understated aesthetic quite nicely, the stars of The Tunnel and the Clearing are frequently the various echo and delay pedals that she so brilliantly employs (and possibly her vintage drum machine as well). That is not to say that the songs are not also strong, but these seven pieces are quite simple, spartan ones and their primary beauty lies in how Schott wields effects to make her melodies organically wobble, ripple, smear, and overlap. That approach makes everything feel hazy and disorientingly out-of-phase in a lovely way that nicely complements the album's fun and sultry drum machine grooves. Most of the strongest pieces come near the beginning of the album, as there is an especially great three-song run after the shuffling and thumping instrumental opener. In "Revelation," Schott quietly sings a tender melody over a pulsing and spacey backdrop, but it slowly dissolves into woozy ambiance that later builds into a beeping psych crescendo. My favorite piece is the charmingly tropical-sounding "Implosion-Explosion," which sounds like Stereolab and Yo La Tengo turned up for all-star beach party jam, while the title piece is a synth instrumental that feels like an Emeralds song freed from its structure and allowed to spiral off into soft-focus bliss. The final three pieces get a bit more eclectic, as the two-part "Gazing at Taurus" initially sounds like an '80s Euro pop chanteuse backed by a shimmering cloud, then becomes a hypnagogic twist on "cruise ship lounge band." "Hidden in the Current," on the other hand, almost veers into proggy indulgence, but is arguably saved by its psychotropic, oscillating drones. While I certainly commend Schott for her adventurousness, the best thing about this album is the same as the best thing about every Colleen album: her singular gift for crafting understated, intimate, and precariously dream-like glimpses of pop heaven.
Samples can be found here.