May 14, 2018
Released On September 1, 2014
Released By Lefse Records
Shallow was one of those records I fell in love with by accident. I remember when this record came out, I read Pitchfork‘s review in passing and thought it sounded interesting enough, but never sought it out. Then one day I was browsing the shelves at Plan 9, one of the many great record stores I frequented during my time living in Richmond, VA, and found a copy of the CD in the bargain bin for $1 not long after its release. I figured I had nothing to lose and took it home. When I put it on that night, sitting at my computer, the first notes of the music stopped me dead in my tracks (in a manner of speaking). Instead of continuing whatever I’d been doing, I laid down on my bed and spent the next forty-three minutes listening to these songs, allowing nothing else to distract me from the music. I still remember that feeling today, how awestruck I was by what I heard, and echoes of that night come back to me every time I listen to this album. Even through what must be hundreds of listens now, I still feel exactly the same way, captivated and full of wonder.
Sea Oleena’s music is like something out of a dream, hypnotic and mysterious, a cavernous soundstage awash in reverb and draped in shadows. Although the record sounds like it could wrap you in its arms, when you take the music apart, the instrumentation is actually quite limited: Charlotte Loseth’s whispery vocals, gently finger-picked guitar, a dash of violin, some ear-rattling string bass, piano, and just enough shimmering synth to fill in the sound here and there. Those seven elements make up basically the whole record, give or take some backing vocals, but the music never feels underdeveloped or wanting for more (production masterfully handled by Charlotte’s brother Luke Loseth). In fact, it feels luxuriously rich and organic, every instrument so individual and full of life. In a world where sample libraries reign supreme, listening to actual strings and piano lends the music an intimacy that synthesized instruments could never replicate. My personal favorite is the string bass (played beautifully by Patrick Latreille), which seems to have been mic’d so closely that every pluck and bow, especially on the very lowest notes, reverberates so intensely it almost shakes the room.
One thing to note is that five out of the seven songs on the album are set primarily in triple meter, something almost unheard of in contemporary pop and rock where duple meter, a simple 4/4 specifically, is the simplest and easiest time signature for songwriting (although triplet flow has recently come in vogue in rap). Here, the gentle rocking of triplets put the listener in that drowsy state of mind, disarming you with its inherent lull. It calls to mind compositions like the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, another dreamlike piece of music that relies heavily on constant triplets to convey its mood. Loseth’s lyrics mirror this musical dream state as well, outlining the intimate and personal in elliptical, poetic terms. Much of the imagery revolves around just a few ideas: shadows and light, the moon and the night, water, the ocean, waves, loneliness and isolation, sleep and waking. Opener “If I’m” centers around pairs, metaphors for two people intimately connected, perhaps even co-dependent: “If I’m a corner that the dark backs into / You’re the darkness that this corner clings to.” The lyrics also have a tendency to favor the enigmatic over the concrete, although Loseth occasionally reveals something quietly devastating, as she does towards the end of the seven-minute title track: “And I, in the shadow of everyone / Carry on slow / I, at the end of a line / Tow it alone.” Closer “Paths” ends with the repeating line, “Yours is a path I’d like to cross.” Simple, somewhat direct, but still curious and strange in its phrasing. My favorite song, the eleven minute utter masterpiece, “Vinton, LA,” seems to outline a failing relationship, a story about two people not meant to be together who feel the truth but can’t yet admit it to themselves, all set against a series of absolutely gorgeous guitar and piano arpeggios. The two-and-a-half minute piano outro is utter perfection.
Shallow is a record where every element has its place, where it all connects, where the instrumentation, production, lyrics, songwriting, all work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve read that Brian Eno once said that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” You could put Shallow on and simply let the music drift along in the background, the waves of sound ebbing and flowing beneath your focus, as I do when I put it on and fall asleep. It’s certainly calming and soothing, and a very good choice for that. But Sea Oleena has crafted something truly special with Shallow, a sonic moonlit dream that beckons you closer, if you choose to listen.
Between the thin cadence of ambience and the ornate wonder of dream pop lies Sea Oleena.
I did some deep digging on the subject of Sea Oleena, a totally mysterious outfit I’d never heard of before the album became an OYR pick, before listening to Shallow. I don’t think I really needed to, though. It’s true that I learned the name of the chief songwriter and only true member of Sea Oleena — Charlotte Loseth — and that she’s a young woman from Quebec — a long way from the Louisiana town this album’s final track is named for — but most of what I learned about Shallow, I learned from listening to it. And that’s something I anticipate doing quite a bit more of in the future, because this delicate, ambient album’s thousand-mile-wide soundscapes are entrancing and delightful. Loseth’s voice and either a guitar or a piano take center stage on all seven of these deliberately-paced tracks, and most of what you hear behind them is space. The songs’ borders aren’t determined so much by the lyrics or the melodies of the voice or the main instrument as they are by the softly sketched borders drawn by the massive amounts of reverb ladled across the instrumentation. There are occasional string-section augmentations, mostly from the plucked, scraped strings of a cello, but there’s no real backbeat to speak of anywhere on this album. And after a while you get used to it, to the point that the soft percussive tapping in the midst of the album’s most active song, “Everyone With Eyes Closed,” is a significant shock. It may only be a guitarist rhythmically striking some muted strings (it may also be a hi-hat rhythmically tapped with a brush, or it might even be both — it’s too deep in the mix to even make out clearly), but it’s so much more of a rhythm than we’ve gotten anywhere else on the album (or will get before its end) that it’s impossible not to take note of it. Indeed, the moods Loseth creates on this album are more often driven home by the minimalist instrumentation than they would ever be if augmented by a full band. It almost seems as if adding more to songs like “Shades Of Golden” or the 11-minute closer, “Vinton, LA,” would detract from rather than add to their impact. This album is massive — deep and wide, stretching away from your vantage point as a listener for untold parsecs. However, it soon becomes clear that Sea Oleena needs all of the space they’re given by these huge sonic expanses just to deliver their message in the ideal manner. Message received. Put this on in a dark room on a quiet night, and you’ll get it too.
It’s hard to know if it’s the impression made by the album cover or something inherent in her sound but Charlotte Loseth’s breathy laments are as vast and lonely as her home prairie of Saskatchewan, Canada. Depicted is a bloodied female finger reaching, outstretch with little context other than an upward angle toward a muted background. Someone is down, fingers curled meekly in a last grasp. The blood would suggest, time is limited. The mood begins dour and track after track we get dragged through something caught between unsettling and soothing. It’s hard to imagine the tracks being played live in anything other than a dark room by herself — which is not really live at all. Seven tracks meander through a swirling haze of strings, gently struck piano melodies walk up and down scales and her voice hisses the melodies into your ear. It would take a lot of effort to try and discern the lyrics and the lazy pacing works against you. There is not enough energy to care but you feel as though you should be paying attention. Someone is in need. Don’t think too hard about it. Just feel it. Act. Opener “If I’m” is as close to anything accessible you’re going to get because somewhere a beat emerges just long enough to give the whole album momentum. The rest offers nothing in the way of percussion other than the occasional sound of an object dropping or a happenstance rub up against a computer key or an instrument. “Vinton, LA” floats us away on a cloud of optimism but for the winding grind of a misplaced string. It’s distracted and deliberate in pieces falling away until it’s only sparsely a song anymore. Somewhere in the beginning it falls apart entirely. It rests. Then it picks up again, as though it were going to be fine. Perhaps someone came after all? Our figure has been rescued. Maybe you have too.
Right on the surface, it’s funny to notice that Sea Oleena (known off stage as Charlotte Oleena) chose to title her record, Shallow, because that’s as distant a descriptor one could select to encapsulate the seven songs of this debut album. Not a single moment is wasted in establishing a grandiose, widespread, and deeply recessed sound stage for Oleena’s musings. Pairing acoustic instrumentation like guitar, violin, harp, and piano — as opposed to simply a breadth of artificial synthesizer tones common to artists seen as ambient and dream pop — with very loose and sustaining reverb, takes an initially straightforward ambient approach to one that expresses some gentle folk associations as well. Everything is made to sound expansive and made to last. Oleena’s soft-edged, wistful singing voice might not seem like the kind that will stick around — both in the sense of physically and in the sense of mentally, when a person’s individual vocal qualities are unique enough to spur further interest from listeners long after the fact. However, despite the aversion form vocal aggressiveness, the production supports and enhances Oleena’s smooth and pure tone color in such a way that every long held out legato note could be one that continues to echo in one’s own mind, even long after the moment has passed and a new one has started. Beyond vocal beauty, there’s also the pleasantry derived from short sections of songs that are entirely instrumental, otherwise lyric-less, or feature Oleena singing words but holding syllables at length — thus making the completed words feel less like the items of importance. These fleeting but recurring instances bring forth moments that are another highlight of Shallow: each lend themselves well to inspiring a brief meditation. (e.g. the guitar interlude in “Shades Of Golden,” the calm ticking of a metronome against pizzicato strings and Oleena’s syllabic signing in the title track.) The only downside? Even though Shallow is a record that instills a feeling of such calm, it doesn’t feel like the kind of quieter folk and ambient music I would want on a picture perfect spring day — even one wherein I am aiming to just relax. Instead, there’s an inherent sense of deactivation and decompression that seems to fit well with a listen to Shallow. One can choose to use a beautiful day to rest but still be brimming with lively energy. By contrast, Shallow feels just right for the slow approach of twilight hours and the general intention to not only take things slow but to work toward curbing one’s energy for the day.
Stripping her sound and voice to essential components, Sea Oleena creates an instantly compelling sound that’s as cathartic as it is agonizing.
Although the investigation of aesthetics teaches us that artistic intention is irrelevant, one definition of perfection may be that the creator accomplished precisely what they set out to do. Or at least that the finished result feels that way. By this metric, Shallow by Sea Oleena, the nom de musique of Charlotte Loseth of Montreal, is a perfect record. I sink so deeply into her spacious, dreamily melodic tracks that I’m having difficulty imagining any daylight between thought and expression. The closest analogs to her sound would probably be Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise or nearly any album by Cocteau Twins, which also present seemingly flawless facades. I could describe the soundscapes within Shallow, mentioning the slow guitar arpeggios, with every squeak of the strings adding to the mood, low cellos pushing through the haze, layers of vocals approximating clouds of sound — but it really should be heard for itself. If you like music that seems to suspend time, untethering your mind from earthly gravity while still containing enough harmonic and lyrical invention to hold your attention, Shallow is for you. Her brother, Luke Loseth, who performs as Holobody, produced the album and seems an integral collaborator. In fact, while everything on Shallow seems very much the product of an individual vision, this brief profile states that it was “a group effort, with Patrick Latreille (bass), Patrick Cruvellier (violin) and her brother Luke bringing their own musical contributions to Loseth’s deeply personal lyrics.” The same article also mentions that Loseth was distancing herself from the sound of Shallow, which makes me even more delighted to discover that it’s her third album, meaning there is more of her magical realms to explore. They’re all on Bandcamp for free or “name your price” so this is a risk-free proposition for me — and for you! The only thing that haunts me slightly is the way she seems to have disappeared. Shallow is now four years old and remains her most recent release. Her Facebook page has no posts past 2011 and her last Tweet, from May 2015, was: “mood: floating face up in a pool of unknown depth at the base of a waterfall silently repeating the words ‘always learning’ for an eternity.” I hope you’re okay, Charlotte.
I assume that’s blood on the hand pictured on the album cover. It’s quite fitting given that Charlotte Loseth’s style is to allow sounds — colors, really — to flow and crawl (read: bleed) into each other. Loseth’s songwriting is aqueous and fluid, and that makes listening to Shallow feel like you’re inside of a lava lamp. Maybe that’s what the sudden realization of a severe injury feels like — weightlessness, powerlessness, sensory overload to the point of system-wide shutdown. Maybe you deny it for a second or two. Maybe you try to fight the pain. Maybe you try to fight the fear that’s creeping in (kinda like the title track which slinks across the floor like a pool of blood). It would appear that the moment captured on the cover is the moment after you check the wound and you realize something is really fucking wrong, and all the thoughts and emotions that come with wash over you. Is that catharsis? I suppose acceptance is a part of it. It’s certainly a theme of the album, both musically and lyrically (e.g., “But there’s a light in the dark/ And there will be light if I’m gone”), as is the recurring theme of zero gravity ambiance — dreams, water, floating. There’s a certain comfort in Shallow: It’s a cold comfort, a distant comfort. It’s a kind of comfort that might float away, or might be illusory. Maybe that was the point.
Sea Oleena’s soars in her ability to turn meager offerings up into an endless sonic bounty full of coveted epiphanies.
30 minutes is a weird duration for a drive. It’s long enough to feel like a schlep, but not long enough to warrant the trappings of a road trip, like a special playlist or snacks to keep the driver’s blood-sugar up. I had two 30-minutes drives on Saturday — up to Ashland, Virginia, and back — and though I listened Shallow both ways, I had two completely different experiences. On the way up, it was late afternoon, my blood-sugar was low, and while the album’s beauty was (and is) undeniable, I felt snoozier and snoozier as the drive went along. That middle-ground duration and the wind of the country roads I was on took their toll. But on the way back, the whole world came alive. The sides of those winding roads turned into pitch-black canvases for Charlotte Oleena’s silvery vocals to paint upon. When my daughter says she’s scared of the dark, I like to tell her that all the beautiful colors are still there; you just can’t see them. But Shallow — ironically, in retrospect — reminds me of how beautiful it is to surrender yourself to a mysterious sense of depth. Oleena’s singing sounds immense, and her lyrics are filled with images that open up metaphorical spaces: “Keeping the deepening dreamer asleep in the shallow,” from the title track, and “You led the way to off-white walls and wooden floors and open doors,” from opening track “If I’m.” And it doesn’t get much more expansive than the closing passage of “Everyone With Eyes Closed,” in which Oleena declares, “I was more an ocean than a boat when I was more of everyone, of everyone with eyes closed.” I have to admit, I was tempted to close my eyes on that nighttime drive home — not because I was tired, but because Shallow made being enveloped by the darkness seem so wonderful.
Shallow is another one of those really interesting, “I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it” picks that defies genre classification. Is it “ambient?” Is it “experimental?” Yes, and yes. Whatever tag you want to attach to it, the record is essentially an audio massage chair. In fact, Shallow should be required listening for anyone having to lay in one of those MRI machines for any amount of time. At worst, it’s relaxing. At best, it’s a post-Thanksgiving sprawl on your grandmother’s living room floor. I mean that in the absolute best way possible. However, from the beginning, Shallow takes on a chillingly dark vibe. The opening piano notes of “If I’m” instantly reminded me of the cold piano loop sampled by Marley Marl for Capone-N-Noreaga’s classic “Bloody Money.” Minutes later we’re still in the same dark place, but now it’s an ambient dream sequence. The dream continues on the highly sample-able “Shallow,” and some welcome strings and heavy keys really drive the point home on “Vinton, LA.” The production on Shallow is very solid from start to finish. It’s a consistent vision throughout, though there’s enough differentiation so that it doesn’t sound like one long track. This is one of those records that should come with a “do not mix with alcohol” warning. This will be the record where OYR spawns 1,000 drunk-dials.
There was this recurring dream I had when I was younger. Somehow, I’d be in the back-corner of a square room — mostly, but not limited, to my own childhood bedroom — and suddenly everything before me grew in height and length. The door directly opposite from me was now miles away and the ceilings looked further away than stars do in a midnight gaze. My only action was to cower, sink further into the room that had engulfed me. Time stood still and the room grew larger and larger around me while I did nothing… except wake up. The dream began sometime in elementary school, I believe after a late night incident. Some summer night when I was 7 or 8, I had awoken in the middle of the night and didn’t know where I was. I got out of the bed I was in, recognized nothing around me, and couldn’t find anything in the darkness — no light switch or even a door. For the longest time, I stood still, afraid of what I might find if I felt around. A frightening experience to say the least. Eventually, I fell to my knees and crawled around hoping to gain some direction before I finally found a familiar desk… that led me to a familiar light switch. Turning it on and remembering where I was when I woke up, I surmised that I had tossed and turned in my bed and ended up sleeping at the foot of the bed which led to my disorientation. I didn’t have a large room growing up so it’s terrifying to think that I became so lost and scared in such a small space. I believe the dream came about because of that night, and as such, I associated it with the terror that I felt. But the dream persisted for years, well into high school, where the memories of that night were becoming more funny than scary to me. It was then that the dream took on new meaning for me and I began to view it less as a nightmare, and more as a cautionary tale. I wasn’t so concerned with the part of the dream where I become “small,” something I am cognizant of, but have made peace with as a necessary evil in life. No, I was worried more about life and the world out-growing me, pacing me as I slowly tried to find my own way. I haven’t had the dream in over 15 years now, but I still think of it often, wondering if I’ve become that boy in the corner again or if I stood up to grow with the room. The cryptic and enchanting world that Sea Oleena created on Shallow brought me to this train of thought, specifically with the hypnagogic instrumentation that engulfs lyrics like “and I’m alone but in another way” (“If I’m“) and “and I’m haunted by hills I forgot to climb” (“To Hold“). There’s much more to dissect in this album — the ornate arrangement and simplistic execution, the alarming lyrics and relatable experiences, and the feeling of a dream that seems ready to step out into the real world — but the words of technical praise feel hollow here when considering how much this album made me remember and reflect. If you let it, Shallow will do the same for you as its ideals and atmosphere steep itself into your thoughts and memories. Like my dream, it can feel scary and foreign at first, but before long, you’ll start to welcome it as necessary guidance in your life, guidance that everyone could use at some point.
Echo Echo by Carbon Leaf
Chosen By Doug Nunnally