Lichens: Omns

Valet: Blood is Clean

Blood is Clean finds Nudge member Honey Owens making her debut under the Valet guise. I can't speak for Owens' choice of moniker, though the fact that valet stands for “acting in the personal service of” may have something to do with it; certainly Owens often assumes the role of muse by channeling shamanistic spirits from distant realms. Though the album features Owens' voice on a number of songs, the emphasis is clearly on the kind of long-form, trippy instrumental settings that approximate an opium den transmuted into aural form (the time-suspending closer “North” echoes across multiple galaxies over the course of its thirteen-minute duration). Recorded between January and May 2006, the album stitches together sparsely arranged live takes into haunted invocations and psychedelic workouts. The opener “April 6” sets the tone with its voodoo passages of tribal shudder, and the bluesy meditation “My Volcano” turns trance-inducing when its layers of spiky guitar playing resound.

Though the material may be possessed, Owens' spirits are generally of the gentler persuasion; in other words, Blood is Clean isn't a collection of harrowing, primal scream freakouts. “Burmajuana,” for instance, presents the sounds of anguished souls but their pleas are more murmured whispers than anguished cries. “Mystic Flood” is likewise a quieter meeting of the spirits, while “Sade 4 Bri” presents an oasis of disembodied vocal musing amidst rippling, sea breeze guitars. Joined by scalding electric guitar playing on the title cut, Owens' fragile vocal chant wafts gently over the droning undercurrent that ripples below. That restrained pitch does make Owens' album relatively accessible but it's still an uncompromisingly bold outing by the Portland native.

Though markedly different in many respects, Omns, the second outing by Lichens (90 Day Men member Robert Lowe), drinks from the same psychedelic well as does Blood is Clean. Omns isn't radically different in style from the first, The Psychic Nature of Being, but trumps it by pairing a DVD with its CD. Though Lowe's approach is largely improvisational, his pieces are densely-layered constructions assembled from vocal chants, piano, guitars, and percussion. Seemingly intent on re-awakening long-dormant spirits, Lowe's blurry phantom choirs chant over shadowy drones. The feedback-drenched electric guitar spotlight “Bune” startles for being so dramatically unlike the album's other four pieces. During the piece's nine-minute duration, it's hard not to think of Hendrix, especially when Lowe peels off stabbing tones amidst the slow-burning roar. “M St r ng W tchcr ft L v ng n Sp r t” (“My Stirring Witchcraft Loving Spirit”?) is not only the album's centerpiece for being nineteen minutes long but also the most affecting composition. It first wends a slow and haunting path through ponderous acoustic thickets until four minutes in when Lowe's bluesy guitar picking kicks into second gear atop a single-note synth drone. Halfway through, the music subsides, giving bird sounds the spotlight before Lowe's keening, high-pitched vocals join in. The supplicating character of his multi-layered moans and hums easily makes this section the album's most affecting.

The DVD presents a half-hour performance recorded at Chicago's Empty Bottle in 2006. Though sonically the video doesn't depart radically from the music on the CD, seeing Lowe generating the slow-motion guitar dirge in the flesh proves illuminating. There's nothing accidental about how the piece unfolds, as Lowe brings it to life with careful deliberation. Occasionally, director Mary Scherer cuts to a sunlit forest and colourfully-patterned sheets but, frankly, the concert footage of Lowe alone is compelling enough that the extra images are unnecessary, especially once his ethereal wail is added to the equation. Some might argue that the video footage lessens Lichens' mystique for showing how he generates his multi-layered material but the intimate view it affords of this remarkably powerful performance proves enlightening.

May 2007