Graded on a Curve: Colleen, Captain of None

Colleen is the nom de scène of Cécile Schott, a French multi-instrumentalist who’s been performing for over a decade. Her main axe is the treble viola da gamba; similar to a cello and mainly used for baroque purposes, it figures in a decidedly avant-garde context across her substantial discography. If experimental in nature, Colleen’s artistry avoids the inhospitable, and with her sixth album and first for Thrill Jockey, the music takes an accessible twist sacrificing none of its brilliance. Captain of None is out now on LP/CD/digital.

Like many of the essentially underground entities to rise up in the inaugural decade of the 20th century, I initially stumbled upon Colleen in the seemingly endless info stream fostered by weblogs. Dabbling in her material, I found it interesting, but it hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve paid Cécile Schott the attention she deserves.

The treble viola da gamba, or viol for short, is mostly heard today at recitals and on recordings of early music; Schott’s employment of the instrument for undeniably contemporary ends places her in league with such modern wielders of unusual sonic equipment as harpist Joanna Newsom and lute-man Jozef van Wissem.

Colleen’s debut Everyone Alive Wants Answers arrived in 2003 via Tony Morley’s Leaf, the label also issuing its follow-up The Golden Morning Breaks in ’05, the “Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique” EP in ’06 and Les Ondes Silencieuses in ’07. Early in ’06 a limited edition live CD Mort Aux Vaches was released on Staalplaat. After a considerable break, The Weighing of the Heart appeared in ‘13 on new label Second Language.

Even as she plays an instrument that hit its apex of popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries, Schott is frequently described as an electronic composer, in large part due to her use of samples and loops in the creation of pieces ranging between and combining the abstract and the tuneful. And sometimes her compositions can be fragmentary, as in a few of the selections on the ’06 EP.

“Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique” is 38 minutes in length, which is pretty bountiful for an EP and in fact is less than five minutes shorter than Captain of None. The latest by Colleen doesn’t feel slight however, partially because it essays new wrinkles in the composer’s methodology. It bears mention that in reaching this point Schott has been far from artistically stagnant.

Over time her work has become harder to encapsulate as electronic, and in truth she was never really an exponent of the (admittedly rather wide-open) genre’s norms. And on Les Ondes Silencieuses she discarded samples and loops entirely for a Classical environment neither Modernist nor Minimalist; at moments the bowed strings are so resonant the recording almost seems to be emanating from inside of the viol, though the LP offers more than chamber delights.

Captain of None’s fresh twists might open up a wider audience for Schott. For one thing, there’re her vocals to consider, but as this element was previously established on The Weighing of the Heart it therefore rides backseat to the frankly unexpected explorations of Jamaican music, specifically the sound of dub reggae.

Instead of consuming Schott’s personality, the reggae influence is restrained an often implicit; it can surely be detected in the bookending bottom-end of opener “Holding Horses,” a track eschewing her vocals for cyclical and increasingly hypnotic plucking, a maneuver markedly diverting from the bold voice gush at the outset of her prior LP.

Schott has related a childhood love of a tape containing a bunch of ’76-’79 killers by Lee Perry, a confession highlighting the hazy echo in the guts of “Holding Horses.” And akin to the analog manipulation of prime dub, Schott nixes computer technology and utilizes a Moogerfooger delay pedal (there was absolutely no chance I could resist dropping the name of that device) plus homemade percussion on such tools as chopsticks and an Indonesian metal printing block.

“I’m Kin” introduces Schott’s attractive yet strong singing into the album’s equation, her lilting tone mingled with the glistening and buoyantly plucked strings. It makes for graceful listening stopping short of the ethereal, with midsection percussion adding weight. And rhythm immediately asserts itself in “This Hammer Breaks,” as what certainly seems to be a hand drum recalls African music.

If the echo and reverb at first suggest dub, the timbre soon leans into textures reminiscent of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Konono Nº1. But with “Salina Stars” dub again becomes easily discernible, and the impact of Augustus Pablo is felt through Schott’s melodica playing; no faker on the blow-organ, her adeptness and disdain for mimicry helps in sidestepping any hackneyed gestures by a wide margin.

And by no means has she jumped ship on Colleen’s past scenarios, with “This Hammer Breaks” presenting a tangibly electronic finale as the vocal gist of “Lighthouse” is comparable to her last record, though instrumentally portions are mildly (probably incidentally) reminiscent of fingerpicked guitar. It’s during the plucking-fiesta of “Soul Alphabet” that Schott’s talent on the viol is most evident.

It also delivers one of the disc’s instantly agreeable segments, and additionally amiable is the dubby highpoint “Eclipse,” which maxes out the level of echo, a tactic uniting well with Schott’s slow breathy chanting of the song’s title. There’s even a flute struggling to emerge from the mix; at the close it finally achieves liberation.

As on The Weighing of the Heart, the title track of Captain of None is sequenced last, the cut shorn of the preceding stylistic progressions to showcase the artist’s baseline looping strategies; here, her voice repeats alternating phrases and blends them with the subtle and indeed organic flow of the instrumentation. It concludes a trim effort on a bright, inviting note.

At the end of this record’s promotional text Thrill Jockey summarizes the experience with the phrase “unconventional pop.” And some will assuredly see no benefit in tagging a platter carrying such limited retail possibilities as a pop endeavor, but for those not chained to a cash register the term can be highly illuminating.

Especially for those perking up whenever somebody utters the hyphenated descriptors art-pop or avant-pop; if eclectic, Schott’s oeuvre is an inviting one, in particular most recently, and it’s readily clear she’s interested in a dialogue with as many open ears as can be reached. Through Captain of None it’s just as apparent that as Colleen she remains a thousand miles away from pandering for listenership.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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