Review by Heather Phares
Blood Is Clean, Honey Owens' debut as Valet, feels more like a séance than an album. Owens described the process of making these works as more like channeling the music rather than self-consciously recording it, and it shows: her voice, guitar and electronic drones are woven together inextricably, and as she murmurs and moans, the sounds surrounding her ebb and flow match her, rising and falling like breath on the aptly named "Mystic Flood." On "Sade 4 Bri," guitar melodies ripple, reflect and undulate in endless, hypnotic patterns. Blood Is Clean is very different than Owens' work with Nudge, and resembles her contributions to Jackie-O Motherfucker only slightly -- Valet's blend of folk, drones, and indescribable noises that sound organic (even if they're anything but) borrow from Owens' other projects but sound completely unique. "April 6" begins Blood Is Clean with massed, wordless vocals, bongos and impressionistic guitar textures -- Owens strums and taps her instrument into melodic rhythms and percussive melodies that blur into each other -- while electronic sounds and other percussive elements drift in and out. The effect is incredibly natural, almost like field recordings, but as atmospheric as the album gets, it never quite fades into the background, even on the most abstract pieces like "Burmajuana," which consists of little more than whispering, wind chimes, and viscous guitar drones. Blood Is Clean's more songlike tracks are especially beautiful: Owens has an unselfconsciously sensual voice much like Bardo Pond's Isobel Sollenberger, and "Tame All the Lions" and the title track have some of the disorienting, woozy loveliness of that band's more gently psychedelic moments. The final, 13-minute epic "North" is another standout, piling layers of processed, slowly morphing vocals on top of each other so densely and lushly that they're almost tangible, suggesting glaciers slowly but surely moving and reshaping themselves. Owens' uncanny gifts for textures and for playing with space and distance in her music make Blood Is Clean a quietly accomplished album, artfully crafted without being obviously crafted. Though Owens' work is subtle, it's not so understated that it fails to make an impact on the first listen, and while active listening to the album is rewarded, there's a lot to be said for letting its serene yet unexpected sounds wash over you.
Blood Is Clean
The voice and presence of Portland's Honey Owens has a lent a captivating accent to every group she's been involved with, whether it's the dub-inflected Nudge or the roots-centered improv of Jackie-O Motherfucker. For her latest project Valet, however, Owens proceeds alone, shaping her environment with spare, dreamy traces of voice, guitar, and free-spirit drones. On Valet's debut Blood Is Clean, Owens uses her solitude to maximum effect, crafting a singularly hypnotic album that is at once intimate yet deceptively expansive, her every spectral breath and note focused in an uneasy, almost supernatural isolation.
Then again, it could be said that perhaps Owens is not quite so alone here as she might first appear, as her stated intention for Valet's work is to operate as a medium, channeling sounds from an unknown realm. And there's no question that Blood Is Clean is charged with a disquieting, otherworldly energy-- even for listeners skeptical of Owens' spiritualist designs. In this regard, Valet bears favorable comparison to such free/drone contemporaries as Charalambides' Christina Carter or Fursaxa's Tara Burke. Yet Owens takes care never to allow any stray loosened spirits to crowd her out completely, and each of these eight pieces is composed and performed in a voice that is wholly and irretrievably her own.
To achieve her mystic sound, Owens utilizes a number of subtly variant techniques, but she recorded the bulk of this material in live single takes with few added overdubs. Aside from her distinctive, impressionistic vocals and guitar, many of her other source materials seem deliberately obscure, an ambiguity which contributes directly to the music's unsettling glow. On the opening invocation "April 6" she frames her wordless vocals against a shifting backdrop of submerged percussion and winds, granting the performance the clouded perception of some distant, half-remembered ritual. This effect is repeated on "Mystic Flood", which draws inspiration from Haitian Voodoo drumming to further its mysterious, almost subliminal pulse.
Elsewhere, Owens reluctantly makes a few marginal concessions to more conventional song structure. On the spectacular title track, her molten psych-guitar figures emerge from beneath a dense, virtually motionless bass rumble while she sings "My blood is clean but the devil's in me" with a chilling detachment. "Tame All the Lions" works a lurching, bone-simple riff into a swirl of wall-rattling distortion, while the potent "My Volcano" echoes Loren Mazzacane Connors at his most desolate. Throughout these songs, Owens' vocals remain a familiar yet inscrutable element, her whispery-- and, yes, honeyed-- delivery as seductive as it is vaguely unnerving.
As might be expected with music so spontaneously channeled, there are plenty of lulls on Blood Is Clean where apparently the spirits lacked anything fascinating to share. The album closes with "North", a 13-minute textured drone that, charming though it is, feels rather lackluster coming on the heels of the rest of the album's spirited, emotive display. These occasional lapses notwithstanding, Blood Is Clean shows Valet to be yet another fruitful project for Honey Owens, whose music evidently rings pure no matter what company she's keeping.
-Matthew Murphy, May 03, 2007