Music Review: Katie Gately – Color
Posted on 14 October 2016
[Tri Angle; 2016]
Robin Carolan’s Tri Angle Records has played an important role in the politics of style and relevance of the time after blogwave — say, after the death of Altered Zones. To its credit, the label never fell into the step of any idiom in spite of plenty of attempts to pin it down under the suffocating term “witch house.” It always acknowledged the tension between the imperatives to highlight singularity and to have integrity as a large-scale cultural tastemaker, beginning with its first release — Let Me Shine For You, a mixtape explicitly inspired by Lindsay Lohan (who appeared on the cover) — and featuring a few acts that would become important to the electronic music of the first half of the 2010s, like Laurel Halo, Autre Ne Veut, and Oneohtrix Point Never. One of the things these artists have in common is an interdisciplinary brand of electronic music, dramatically shifting shapes between releases and even between tracks. These kinds of relations have been sustained between the figures that emerge within Tri Angle’s orbit, including How to Dress Well, who sold out elsewhere, and more recently Rabit, who went for broke with his own Halcyon Veil imprint. Still, somehow, I’m convinced that Carolan’s real project is concentrating all this marginal energy into Top 40 starpower. The empirical fruits of this mission, limited as they are, can be found in the ascent of How to Dress Well, AlunaGeorge (who ditched Tri Angle for Interscope), and The Haxan Cloak, who contributed to Björk’s dreary and intimate Vulnicura not long after his own groundbreaking album Excavation came out on Tri Angle. It’s been a long six years for the label, which is still awaiting its own big crossover record.
Color isn’t that record, though it bears traces of the bigger mission. Its lyrical vocals and sometimes hook-centered arrangements are a novel development in Katie Gately’s discography, which, according to Discogs, now spans seven releases: Color, the Pipes cassette on Blue Tapes, her equally great self-titled EP on Public Information and split with Tlaotion in the FatCat Split Series, a single, and a couple DJ mixes (including one for TMT). There isn’t much continuity in her discography, with a range of projects from the vocal-only “Pivot” to the cinematic, textural Katie Gately. While it has predictably little in common with anything else she’s done, Color shares the cinematic quality of the latter. Where her self-titled EP could soundtrack body horror or seismic intensity, Gately’s debut Tri Angle LP is darkly whimsical, with some of the same musical theater resonances as Julia Holter’s virtuosic Loud City Song, sometimes melting here into those of Gobby’s cartoonish reverie. It evokes, in other places, Holly Herndon’s exercises in hypnogogic sound, film, and sound for film, and in others still Björks of various eras. It even has a ballad of sorts in “Color,” and a song that is mostly affected string samples (“Rive”). It is a surprisingly eclectic debut, though it could still be thought of as a concept record when considered in the context of Gately’s elusive and kinetic oeuvre. She hasn’t rescaled her practice to the production of pop songs, but has rather selectively acknowledged a psychic inheritance. The music is elaborate and orchestral, but also deeply indebted to intuition.
With Color, Gately doesn’t move from an emphasis on the ambient and affected voice to lyrics, but loosely circumnavigates the space in between those; she herself has written, at the end of the lyric sheet for “Lift,” “OOOH/ huh huh/ GIDDY-UP!/ *this is just a fuckload of vocables onwards….” So we know she didn’t get too picky about words, which is definitely not to say that the words and the functions they perform throughout Color are not interesting. “I will dream of you,” she sings on “Tuck,” “in a glistening showcase of world.” On the creeping and elegantly descending strings track “Rive,” the lyrics “The wind’s gonna break all wires insulate/ The wind’s gonna break your house is not safe darling” carry their sense powerfully, in spite or more likely because of their improvised character. Same goes for “Color” and its lamenting discourse on “my rock-based heart.” Lyrics aren’t a textually demanding force on this record, but they take their place in a framework with an evocative goal.
A common theme of Color is the frenetic, saturating accumulation of sound. There’s “Pivot,” which consistently amazes me, as well as the chilling “Dead Referee” and “Left Half” from Gately’s other releases, for days on which I don’t feel up to “Tuck” with its synthetic horn flourishes and distorted drums, or the blown-out arpeggios of “Sire.” But Color is, first, a thing of intrigue and frenzy, as deserving of your undivided attention as it is confounding mixed with almost any other sense perception; second, it’s an exercise with a few robust rewards. An artist whom those in the know already considered to be an odd and excellent sound designer has chosen the debut album not as a platform for affirming what we already knew, but for a bright and noisy flirtation with convention.