Cécile Shott is a weaver of quaintly enigmatic dreamcatchers, her music a simple yet beguiling web of contradictions. Utterly unlike anything else, her compositions are resolutely acoustic and beatless instrumentals, yet her first album, 2003’s Everyone Alive Wants Answers, was composed entirely of samples warped and looped into a ghostly veil of sound by electronic manipulation. Her tracks drift with a flow that has no need for rhythms as such, and the atmosphere of her pieces is one of such fragile intimacy that she might as well be singing to us à la Joanna Newsom—which makes her decision to record under an assumed name all the more puzzling. Despite her (relative) anonymity in the world of music journalism, we know that she is in her 20s, but the romantic nostalgia that permeates her titles and choice of instruments (and which also goes someway to explaining the artlessly naive cover art: a mournful unicorn resting his head on a fairy’s shoulder) is that of someone of a different, earlier era—and entirely at odds with the clinical care and understatement that has gone into playing and recording these semi-improvised pieces.
The Golden Morning Breaks does indeed herald something new in Colleen’s world, although nothing as drastic as that title (actually from a piece by late 16th century lute player John Dowland) might lead today’s hip-hop-addled youth to suppose. Although her sonic manipulations on the first album were never predictable as such (despite frequent looping there was an uncertainty about them that made things both more interesting and more human), preparing to perform the compositions live exposed Shott afresh to the pleasures of performing and of learning new instruments, her listening repertoire broadening to take in viola de gamba, West African kora, and Indonesian folk and Gamelan. Though these influences may not be immediately obvious, this is partly because Shott has, for the moment at least, turned her back on sampling (“There’s no point in copying them because it would never be as good as the original”) and mainly because Colleen has never been about certain motifs, instruments or structures, but rather about the evocation of ambience, whether in minute, dusty detail or broad, luminous shades.
Much abused journalistically, the term “diaphanous” has never been as apposite as it is here.
As a record, this album’s strengths and weaknesses coincide almost exactly with those of the form and hence will clash with the mood and sensibilities of the listener accordingly; which is to say that if listening to a track like “The Heart Harmonicon”—which might be described as akin to watching raindrops fall and bounce on this 19th century glass glockenspiel-precursor through a magnifying glass at sunrise—strikes you as twee and only momentarily diverting, then the music here is not for you. There are no hooks or rhythmics, and one could accuse a decent percentage of the record of being pretty, plonky aimlessness which, due to its stranger and more haunting qualities, cannot even be employed as soothing wallpaper.
What is required in order to reap the benefits of Colleen’s matchless but incredibly finely attuned talent is the time and willingness to immerse oneself (indeed, perhaps to inebriate oneself) in the romance of the gently lapsing moment, letting the faerie lights of Schott’s tones coalesce into tender swathes of a fragrant wonder both self-absorbed and drifting, content and enthralled within and of itself. Looking for stand-out tracks or even portions of them is completely beside the point; instead we have a constellation of gorgeous moments and the images they evoke: an old cuckoo clock floating beside a fireplace, slowly winding down; bubbles rising in vintage cider through the mist of an early sunset in autumn; warm river water lapping between your toes when you stand on a pebble beach during the last afternoon in spring; moonlight spreading across your pillow and into Shott’s silent elfin eyes as she watches over you, her blonde hair cushioned beneath your cheek…
Ye gods, someone bring me a fuckin’ Motörhead album whilst I still have some hardened hack dignity left.