Album Review: Kee Avil -‘Spine’: experimental pop with a thrilling, raw urgency from the Montreal artist.

The Breakdown

Such intimately up-close, almost intrusive song-writing makes ‘Spine’ so distinctive and strangely special.
Constellation Records 9.0

Two years ago Montreal producer Kee Avil’s debut for Constellation ‘Crease’ turned heads with its leftfield pop mosaicism, an intricate patterning of vocal, sound and instrumental shapes set with experimental glue but framed in song form. Now at last we have the follow up ‘Spine’, again via Constellation, and a chance to engage with Avil’s angular artistry once more.

As the album title suggests this record feels like a fundamental document, something more exposed and direct than the suggestive messages wrapped in the folds of her intricate debut. Speaking about her new work, Avil admits “For 2 years after Crease, I didn’t write music, words were just tip toeing in my brain. Spine had to happen fast, so I wouldn’t get frozen in time again“. Consequently this new project was conceived and completed quickly over the course of a year, grabbing voraciously at Avil’s experiences during that time. Written primarily at home, then rendered once again with Montreal compatriot Zach Scholes at their familiar Concrete Sound Studio, for Avil the album stands as “a snapshot of that year being pulled apart into 40 minutes”.

The “pulling apart” of these experiences hints at the tension which wires ‘Spine’ together, the shattering, the fragmentation and sometimes aggressive approach to understanding. This is not music of dreamy, musing reflections. Stoically built around four components, guitar and electronics plus any two other instruments, together with Avil’s distinctive multi-textured vocal, there is a raw urgency here.

Opening track Felt jangles with nervous energy, twisting gangly guitar phrases with a DIY electronic patter and spit. It’s an off-kilter pop song, sort of Dischord meets Euro post punk, driven by Avil’s weary voice, clawing and pleading for something that seems out of reach. A similar balance between desperation and seething regret quivers through the rolling PJ blues of remember me while the almost tender strumming of at his hands gets more unsettling in its slow core reveal. The final repeated ‘hook’, “there’s no way to say I’m sorry for what you been through at his hands” is chilling.

A Dean Blunt-esque aura hovers around Avil’s work throughout ‘Spine’, that inexplicable power of intuitive, unpretentious lo-fi craft that somehow spirals into the depths of complexity. On the anguished drama of under, Avil and producer Scholes sculpt a harrowing song from just a slow booming bass note, oscillating echoes and anguished vocal nuance. When the singer pleads “all at once you’ve offered me dreams and nightmares” you catch both the hopelessness and anger in her voice. The defiant showed you may introduce violin into the tight instrumental template but the move doesn’t suggest Avil’s ‘Spine’ is softening. Mark Molnar’s bow scrapes and spidery runs petrify the stark moments of fractured experimental tango even further.

There may be times, as you plunge deeper into the album, that you wonder when there might be a breather, maybe something like the stunning gothic balladry which Gazelle Twin sometimes lets surface within her intense narratives. But such pauses might not ride so well for Kee Avil, an artist who shows a steely commitment to telling her truths in her own way. Her roots in the Montreal experimental scene clearly run deep and those instincts for no compromise give ‘Spine’ its essential integrity.

So the songs on this album may be unorthodox and some distance from undemanding listening but in pushing the boundaries of avant pop they have a real place. Fading flows like a sound poem, by the end its phrases reeling in an improvisational frenzy. The song is subtly structured around snatches of childlike tunefulness, goaded by jittery beats and with lyrical bite that capture Avil’s emptiness as she remembers “eating sweet clouds, tasting nothing”. Equally arresting, the pounding do this again deconstructs a Tuneyards percussive rush, suggests some electro flashes but lands somewhere more intriguingly personal.

Such intimately up-close, almost intrusive song-writing makes ‘Spine’ distinctive and strangely special. It has the similar abrupt, unforgettable impact as Daniel Blumberg’s brilliant ‘GUT’ from last year. The squalling Croak, a fanfare of feedback mixed with dark-wave beats and Avil’s clipped, dismissive whispers carries her new album’s defiant singularity to the close. There has rightly been no let up with ‘Spine’. Throughout Avil’s pared back sounds match the emotional exposure that she bravely allows or maybe things aren’t quite so transparent? In writing about the album she mentions it is “telling a secret about nothing” perhaps hinting that in these auto-biographical songs, the “snapshot” of her year, we will all recognise parts of ourselves.

Get your copy of ‘Spine’ by Kee Avil from your local record store or direct from Constellation HERE

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