The sparse, metaphysical atmosphere has given way to a more developed sound, but the emotions conveyed still feel spontaneous and ambivalent.
Portland indie stalwart Honey Owens, a sometime contributor to Jackie-O Motherfucker, Nudge, and countless other projects, named her solo project Valet because she views it as yet another kind of collaboration -- a channeling of spirits. That claim could have been so much Pacific Northwestern hippie nonsense, but the echo soup of last year's debut, Blood Is Clean, really did sound like a séance, albeit one conducted in a sensory deprivation chamber rather than somebody's candle-lit basement. Owens has brought back her minimal, heavily processed guitar, subtly churning synth textures, and drained-but-potent vocals for the new Naked Acid , but she's brought some real, live collaborators along this time as well. The ghostly, tribal percussion of the debut has been replaced on three key tracks by the complex drumming of Mark Evan Burden -- who also adds guitar on one track -- and Owens shares vocal duties on the opener with singer-songwriter Adrian Orange. The sparse, metaphysical atmosphere has given way to a more developed sound, but the emotions conveyed still feel spontaneous and ambivalent, as if anything could happen from one moment to the next.
Naked Acid's seven tracks make good on that promise, providing as much sonic variation as you're likely to hear on a single record this year. "We Went There" fades in on bells, a deep, oceanic melange of synths, what sounds like a marimba, and Owens and Orange's voices over-lapping in the kind of haunted abandon that a lot of "New Weird America" bands -- from Charalambides to Fursaxa -- are in love with. There's just enough time to notice that the approach has been imbued with more conviction than usual, before a proggy guitar lead blasts over the top of the carefully constructed mix, shattering the mood, along with any notion that Valet can be pigeon-holed. The following "Drum Movie" may return to the unmistakable séance vibes of Blood Is Clean, but the ambient volume is higher, and Owens's unintelligible vocals are diabolical in a way that's even more unsettling than the chant of "My blood is clean, but the devil's in me", because you simply have no idea what she's thinking, or whether she is at all.
But the album's true highlights are two of its most coherent pieces, "Kehaar" and "Fire". The first feels like a shoegaze song with its sentimental core sucked dry and left for dead on a burnt-out moon. This is the one on which Owens shares guitar duties with Burden, but it's impossible to say who's doing what, and the layers of distortion are so elementally satisfying, you certainly won't bother to try. "Fire" is more of a proper song, the lyrics hinting at a classic country ballad in places, and Owens's wah-guitar fulfilling the emotive function of pedal-steel -- though in a grittier, more challenging way. There is a real story being told here, an unfulfilled love that is spiritual as much as romantic. Fittingly, the song feels just as open to natural or supernatural forces as everything else on the album, so when Owens almost sighs the line "Must be the weather / Leaves and strings un-tethered", what could have been a throwaway lyric comes off as endlessly mysterious, even devastating. "Fire" was released as a 7" single last year, and it is destined to emerge as a classic.
It's exact opposite can be found in a self-consciously bluesy, meandering ditty -- appropriately named "Fuck It" -- that is the album's only moment of total failure. The grimy soundscape of "Babylon 4 Eva" may occasionally break its own spell by relying too heavily on Burden's snaky, dubbed-out drum patterns, but when Owens's relatively un-effected vocals suddenly return to the demonic, phased sound of "Drum Movie" and "Kehaar", any sense of boredom will melt away. That voice, in its myriad guises, makes a powerful anchor for Naked Acid, providing a human root to even its most bizarre tangents. But it's rare that music so freely conceived ends up so consistently absorbing, and that is, finally, due to Owens's sonic and structural instincts beyond her vocal presence or the company she keeps -- mortal and otherwise.