Colleen and Jose Gonzalez pull strings and sound out reverberations
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The Night of the Hunter is at the top of a list of favorite films compiled by Colleen, a.k.a. Parisian musician Cécile Schott, and Iker Spazio's lovely cover art for the new Colleen album, Les Ondes Silencieuses (Leaf), more than hints at that film's magic and menace. In Spazio's paper cutinfluenced dark and starry nighttime vision, Colleen is viewed from the back as she plays the viola da gamba at the edge of a forest by a body of water. A bird descends to the ground, a butterfly floats by a tree, and a cat is curled up in a flower bed. The orphans of Charles Laughton's classic might as well be floating by, so strongly does the imagery evoke The Night of the Hunter's famous riverside ballad sequence.
The CD art's dark allure, mixing a sense of innocence with sinister undercurrents, is also present in the recording's title. While a relatively literal translation might be "the still waters," the phrase les ondes silencieuses is also meant to evoke the infrasonic sounds detected only by animals before an earthquake. It's tempting to view the album's spare, acoustic arrangements as ballads composed for the moment just before this world's apocalypse, a perspective that strips away any of the whimsy or preciousness that one might attach to Colleen's use of antiquated instruments crystal glass, spinet, and the aforementioned viola da gamba to create and play these latest compositions.
In the past, Colleen has been associated with unique electronic recordings such as last year's lengthy EP, Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique, which is composed of and constructed from loops of music-box melodies. On that recording, "Rock a Bye Baby" and "Pop Goes the Weasel" are contorted into new shapes, with song titles to match, but most often the enchantment isn't so easily recognizable, and the atmosphere is haunted rather than whimsical. The minimalist symphonic effect of "What Is a Componium? Part 2," for instance, suggests Terry Riley in a bad mood. In interviews Colleen has noted that a search for music-box melodies in movies revealed that they were often paired with scenes of rape or murder, an observation that along with Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique's final track, "I'll Read You a Story," with its oceanic, nighttime waves of classical guitar brings us right back to the Grimms' Fairy Tales imagery on the cover of Les Ondes Silencieuses.
Bowed like a cello but with seven strings and guitarlike frets, the viola da gamba is at the center of the disc, which finds Colleen experimenting with acousticity and a live recording style that involves minimal overdubs. This approach yields meditative rewards on "Blue Sands," on which a sea- and seesawing rhythm cuts across delicate fingerpicking. The spidery spinet melodies on "Le Labyrinthe" and forlorn duet between clarinet and acoustic guitar on "Sun Against My Eyes" are as unsettlingly beautiful. There's a persistent sense of lightlike sound intensifying and then fading into deep empty space, especially on "Echoes and Coral," on which Colleen plays crystal glass in a manner that suggests Aphex Twin at his most ambient as much as it suggests one of her instrumental influences, Harry Partch. As one listens, it's hard not to think about the precataclysmic aspect of the album title. In fact, while The Night of the Hunter is on the top of Colleen's list of favorite films, the final position is occupied by Apocalypse Now.
Much like his cousin in classical guitar composition Colleen, Jose Gonzalez employs acoustic reverberation as a musical metaphor for personal or universal being. That sounds heady, but the appeal of Gonzalez's music stems from its unadorned, understated direct address. On In Our Nature (Mute/Imperial), Gonzalez maintains his trademark tender brevity, but there's a stronger sense of lingering discord brought across through the increased force of his open strumming and plucked bass notes than on his 2003 debut, Veneer (Mute), or the 2005 EP Stay in the Shade (Hidden Agenda). The tension suits a collection of disenchanted songs that apply equally to world affairs and affairs of the heart.
Gonzalez has partly made his name through transformative cover versions of electronic pop songs such as the Knife's "Heartbeats" and Kylie Minogue's "Hand on Your Heart," and on In Our Nature he performs similar wonders with Massive Attack's "Teardrop," using his vulnerable tenor to make the word feathers float and the word breath breathe. Just as contemporary Devendra Banhart can err on the side of poetic whimsy, Gonzalez can tend toward overly literal earnestness.
But both possess special talents. Gonzalez's is pensive. "Abram" uses the figure from the Torah, Bible, and Koran to chide religion, and throughout "Time to Send Someone Away" his recriminations against obesity and war lust are sung in a voice so sweet and soft it's a surprise to realize the words are meant to sting. In Our Nature rivals or even matches the bittersweet wisdom of Caetano Veloso's sublime first album in exile 1971's Caetano Veloso (a Little More Blue) (Philips) on "Down the Line," on which the word compromising gives way to the word colonizing above frantically swaying six-string melodies and rhythms. "Don't let the darkness eat you up," Gonzalez repeats insistently at the song's close. There's paradox in the hopefulness of his ever-beautiful tone, as if a darkness that eats up evil just might be fine.
Mon/8Tues/9, 8 p.m., $25
War Memorial Veterans Bldg.
401 Van Ness, SF
With Tiny Vipers
Mon/8Tues/9, 8 p.m., $20$22
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF