Colleen: A flame my love, a frequency
Thrill Jockey Records

It's conceivable that a blindfolded listener presented with Cécile Schott's 2005 album The Golden Morning Breaks and A flame my love, a frequency might identify them as the work of separate artists, so different are their respective sound worlds. Yet it's just as conceivable that that same listener would, after repeated exposure, begin to detect beyond the changes in presentation an artistic sensibility common to both. It's that which ultimately distinguishes Schott's creative work above all else and enables the listener sufficiently acquainted with her output to recognize it, regardless of changes in presentation. An intrepid figure resolutely faithful to her muse, she's also the kind of artist whose choices remain unpredictable yet with the benefit of hindsight come to seem natural. While it would be naive to suggest she's indifferent to matters of commerce and audience size, she's always stayed true to the directions her music has taken her. Schott's integrity, in other words, is never in doubt.

When creating an album, she often centers her attention on a single instrument, whether it be a music box (2006's Colleen et les boîtes à musique), viola da gamba (2007's Les ondes silencieuses), or, as on her latest release, synthesizers. In the latter case, the turn came about, as it often does, serendipitously. By chance, she happened upon a Critter and Guitari synthesizer at King Britt's Philadelphia studio during the Captain of None tour, which led to the purchase of a Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano, her intent being to use it through an also newly acquired Moog filter pedal to produce new sounds to augment her voice and viola da gamba. It turned out, however, that the results were not to her liking, so she set the viola da gamba aside, added a Critter and Guitari synthesizer called the Septavox to her arsenal, and began producing.

The origins for the album are worth noting, especially when its emotional dimension is so intense. After visiting a sick relative in France in late 2015, Schott decided to visit her former home Paris before returning to San Sebastián, Spain, where she now lives; said stopover would also allow her to have a viola bow repaired by a luthier in the Republique area. Soaking in the familiar sights and sounds of Paris citizens enjoying themselves at their favourite cafés, little did she or they know that within hours those same cafés would be targeted by terrorist attacks.

More than anything else, the new release is marked by contrasts. There's the obvious one of vocal versus instrumental contrast, of course, but the contrasts here are more interesting and subtler than that. The particular synthesizer timbres she uses in the songs, for example, exude a cool chill but also a sensual warmth, and her vocal delivery likewise conveys an intimacy that humanizes it yet also a somewhat android character in the uninflected style with which the words are sung. As I listen to Schott's breathy vocalizing, I'm reminded of the singing of Donna Regina's Regina Janssen, whose delivery is equally unadorned, and to a lesser degree Nico's. The songs are also both maximal and minimal, specifically in the striking range of timbres she's drawn from a modicum of sources (in certain cases, the combination is as stark as it could possibly be, as the title track's pairing of harmonium-styled patterns with her single-tracked voice illustrates). Regardless, the instrumental and vocal design pulls the listener in, inviting a close connection to the artist, while also ensuring it doesn't get too close.

A flame my love, a frequency isn't the first time her luminous vocals have appeared, by the way, as they first surfaced four years ago on The Weighing of the Heart and two years later on Captain of None. It would be inaccurate to characterize her as a vocal-based artist, however; in contrast to singer-songwriters who treat the voice as the primary focal point, Schott's singing, while a focal point of sorts by default when it appears, operates like one more strand within the larger fabric, one that doesn't disrupt the instrumental balance so much as embeds itself within it.

Instantly establishing the album's transporting sound world, “November” charms the listener with the radiance of its synthetic timbres and child-like melodies, its title and subtly elegiac tone a subtle allusion to that horrible day in Paris. The subsequent track, “Separating,” perpetuates similar concerns in lyrical content that alternately deals with death (“The world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue / And I came home with a fistful of fear”) and recovery (“Deep and warm, golden dawn / Shine some more of that light of yours”). So captivating is the lyrical content, one could be forgiven for overlooking an arresting instrumental dimension that sees synth patterns burbling and percolating alongside the vocal. The inclusion of instrumental settings facilitates that appreciation, however, such that the buoyant pitter-patter of “Another World” or brilliant, dub-inflected flutter of “One Warm Spark” won't go unnoticed.

An ethereal, almost fairy tale-like character infuses “Summer Night (Bat Song),” as she muses imaginatively upon a bat hunting so close by she can hear its wings beating. In this wistful reverie, Schott singlehandedly evokes the lost paradise of childhood with all of its magical and cherished moments, whereas the picture expands during the wondrous “The Stars vs Creatures” to consider the cosmos and our place within it (“The stars will have the last word / And outshine us”). It's natural that the material she created in the weeks following that terrible November event would be permeated by such thoughts and feelings. Yet the album is ultimately more optimistic than despairing: Schott chooses resilience over resignation, and a humble appreciation for life and love emerges from these incantations that's powerfully affecting.

December 2017