rench multi-instrumentalist Cécile Schott, better known as Colleen, is among the most quietly intriguing artists of the last decade. Her impressive discography has long relied on a plethora of effects pedals, delays, loops, and variations to give modern voice to her musical weapon of choice, the 15th century-era viola da gamba. With her sixth album Captain of None (Thrill Jockey), she’s taking that sound from its usual realm of chamber-pop and venturing deep into dub territory.
The viola da gamba (“viol of the leg,” or viol as it’s commonly known) was developed in Spain from the double-stringed vihuela, itself a variation on the lute. The viol is typically bowed and, in Colleen’s case, a treble with gut strings. Her work on earlier albums, including 2005’s The Golden Morning Breaks and 2007’s praised Les Ondes Silencieuses , though modern in construction, rarely affected the source sound of the instrument.
Colleen’s long affinity for Jamaican dub and experimentalists such as Arthur Russell and Moondog kicked in when she returned from a personal hiatus in 2010. She began a more explicit exploration of these interests, evident in the 2013 remix EP Solar/Stellar (Colleen Remixed).
On Captain of None, the affinity finally laps over into her treatment of both the instrument and the writing process. From the first arpeggiating notes of opener “Holding Horses,” it’s clear this is different from previous works, its Caribbean accent noticeable. The lowest tones echo as a counterweight to the crisp pluck of the main melody.
The dub influence of King Tubby or Augustus Pablo is most evident on percussion-driven “This Hammer Breaks,” “Salina Stars,” and “Eclipse” later. The vocals are tripped out, the viol over-modulated, and the island vibes readily apparent (which may also have to do with her current residence in the Basque coastal city of San Sebastian, where the record was self-recorded, produced and mixed). It’s as psychedelic as she’s ever been.
“I’m Kin” is a proper pop song, and early on that you’re introduced to her breathy vocals, delivered with noticeable delay. Her voice appears on six of Captain of None’s eight tracks but it never distracts, instead offering one more layer of sound to the production. Simple, resonant phrases are the magic ingredient of most of Colleen’s songs (“You never know what’s in the heart” on “This Hammer Breaks,” for instance, or the simple “On to you” from “Lighthouse”). They’re what stick with you long after the record is finished, leading another organic element to what sounds familiar even when she’s at her most ambitious.
Captain of None should not be viewed as a return to form for Colleen. The qualities that make her music so compelling never really dropped off. More to the point, “Captain” is related to most of her discography in spirit and instrumentation alone. The sound is a step away from the place where she’s made her reputation. Whether you find comfort in the old sounds or the new, Colleen has made a perfect record. It’s as contemporary as you’re likely to find.