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Carmen Villain, ‘Sleeper’ (Smalltown Supersound)

Root for the Villain / Photo by Marie Kristiansen
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 12, 2013
Label: Smalltown Supersound

A brisk wind’s blowin’ in from paradise, and it’s got Norwegian singer/songwriter Carmen Villain caught by the wings. She’s spun upside-down, turned inside out; she’s calling through a kick drum, purring through the wreckage, all tangled up in delay. Braiding strands of ’90s indie rock, rumbling post-punk, and ambient crackle and hum, Sleeper is a spellbinding portrait of metamorphosis. Its dreamlike lyrics — fragmentary, sometimes nonsensical, often unintelligible — are shot through with images of stasis and escape, broken animals and beat-up souls. It’s dotted with crows, owls, and an “anguished lion,” and crisscrossed by lines of flight: figures flying away, train tracks glinting in the moonlight.

As much as it’s rooted in the elements, her debut album is all tied up in the bondage of buying and selling. “As long as I feel fine, honey / Just give me some money,” pleads Villain on opener “Two Towns,” a bewitching song full of Rickenbacker twang and Mellotron swirl. The roiling “How Much” asks, “How much joy have we paid for this serenity?” And in “Dreamo,” we meet characters like Laura, who “is counting all her money,” and Laila, who “sold her soul for fashion.”

Like they teach in fiction courses, write what you know: Villain (a.k.a., Carmen Maria Hillestad) used to be a model. Raised in Norway, based in London, and of mixed Scandinavian and Mexican heritage, her “animal good looks” (to quote Shocking Blue’s “Demon Lover,” a smoldering acoustic cover of which closes out Sleeper) landed her on the covers of glossies like Vogue and Glamour. Between 2001 and 2010, she walked for pretty much every designer of note, from Christian Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier to Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester.

But if we’re to read songs like “Two Towns” autobiographically — “It ain’t no secret how to smile / But nothing kills the loneliness” — it wasn’t all wine and roses. Three years ago, Hillestad stopped taking modeling jobs and turned her efforts towards writing and recording songs: knotty, lo-fi sketches for guitar and voice, fleshed out with the occasional smattering of synthesizer or organ. It’s a flyaway sound, diffuse and draped in echo, and temperamental as a spring wind, but braced with sturdy drums and wiry electric bass. As a singer, she’s a natural, with a versatile, expressive voice — by turns guarded and conspiratorial, ecstatic and disaffected — and a knack for writing melodies that lodge deep in your subconscious. Even when you can’t quite make out what she’s singing, she fully embodies her songs, and vice versa; she’s an undeniable force, but a stealthy presence.

But her voice and her lyrics are just a part of what makes Sleeper such a gripping listen. The record evinces a rumpled bohemian chic resembling a Purple Fashion editorial come to life, but behind that effortless cool is an impeccable sense of craft. Hillestad has professed her love for Sun City Girls and This Heat, and while there’s nothing that outwardly avant-garde here, you can hear how she translated those influences into her own echo-soaked constructions. Her songs are minefields of feedback and back-masked tape, where lone drum-machine hits explode into ricocheting delay chains, and her voice spins through a dubby hall of mirrors. The sound of a windstorm tears through “Lifeissin,” while “Obedience” feels like crawling inside a spring reverb and hanging on for dear life.

Stylistically, her songs occupy a middle ground between the stripped-down intimacy of Cat Power or Kurt Vile and the murky psychedelia of bands like Beak>, Dinosaur Jr., or even Tame Impala, although the ’60s references here are way more Velvets than Beatles. Warpaint and Frankie Rose both come to mind as contemporary points of comparison, though Villain tends to favor chaos over clarity. Often, you get the sense that she’s working her way through her record collection, reverse-engineering epiphanies encoded deep in the grooves. The spidery guitar figure that opens “Lifeissin” resembles Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style” in structure and spirit, and the rubbery tone that kicks off “Obedience” is a dead ringer for the first note of the Pixies’ “Caribou.”

Elsewhere, “Kingwoman” upends Pussy Galore’s trashcan drums, and “Easy” borrows Kevin Shields’ whammy bar, while the atonal, livewire buzz of Sonic Youth and Live Skull is all over the record, laid on in great, vibrating sheets. The tribal stomp and metallic clang of “Made a Shell” suggest a smaller, quieter take on Swans’ mammoth sound, and she channels Michael Gira on “Kingwoman,” too: “Open the bottle and lay on the table / Slowly your mouth will swallow my words / Open your eyes and close your mouth.” But what would have sounded menacing coming from him, she flips into something playful.

Sleeper is a big, burly collage of a record, both in its individual songs and as a whole. It combines Hillestad’s demo recordings, occasionally assisted by the recording engineer Milton Von Krogh and a handful of Oslo musicians, with fuller, heavier sessions produced by Emil Nikolaisen, of the shoegazing psych rockers Serena Maneesh. You can hear his signature in the lush layers of electric and acoustic guitars on songs like “Dreamo” and “Made a Shell,” with their droning leads and shifting modal squalls. The Norwegian dance-music producer Prins Thomas was called in for two tracks: “Obedience,” co-produced by Hillestad, and the interstitial “Light, See,” co-produced by Hillestad and Nikolaisen. (While we’re taking about Hillestad’s collaborators, props to whomever picked Shellac’s Bob Weston to master the album. You’d be hard-pressed to find a livelier, more dynamic recording: He renders her shambling, lo-fi affect ultra-vivid and four-dimensional.)

“Obedience” is a wild cut, with Villain mewling and cooing through a shimmering force field of tremolo twang and dubby Krautrock pulse. The fact that neither song sounds anything like Thomas’ typical Borealic disco suggests that this is well and truly Villain’s show, although Thomas does deserve credit for the album’s trance-like sequencing, having remixed the song’s outros and intros to accentuate the record’s flowing wholeness. Just 42 minutes long, and cresting from highlight to highlight, Sleeper is hard to listen just once: It sucks you in, unpredictable and expertly paced, carefully balancing melody and noise, intent and accident. Sixties girl-group vocals are silenced by the shuddering sound of an amplifier being kicked; monochrome dirges give way to brief, bright passages like swatches of blue sky appearing from behind shifting clouds.

The whole record moves like the weather, in fact. Everything is in motion and in tension, the muffled words and the bent notes glowing hot from friction. At Sleeper‘s restless heart is a desire not just to change shape, but to trade the humdrum stuff of life for a different essence entirely. “Slow smoke please come embrace me,” she implores on “Made a Shell.” “Breathe frost,” she sings on “Lifeissin,” before asking, “Do you believe that I’m going to hell?” Carmen Hillestad knows a thing or two about dealing with the devil, and as Carmen Villain, she goes whipping through the crossroads like a tumbleweed, its wild rotation hiding the void at its center.