Kelly Lee Owens 1

Brooklyn DIY is dead, long live Brooklyn DIY. News had come, the week before, that yet another old school (last-decade) Brooklyn venue would be shutting doors. Silent Barn, a non-profit commune built out of a converted Ridgewood warehouse before more ambitiously moving to pricier pad in Bushwick, will join a graveyard of recently deceased BK spots like Shea Stadium, Palisades and Glasslands, echoes of vibrating strings and bad beer surrendered to the WeWork crowd. Coincidentally, the folks behind Glasslands came back big last year: financing Elsewhere, a large hunk of concrete that’s been host to a fascinating array of indie-ish talent: from John Maus last month to names like Charli XCX and assorted hip friends like CupcakKe and A.G. Cook. I didn’t see that, but who could? I did, however, catch Kelly Lee Owens two nights before and on the same stage. And like the fashionable Charli, Owens is indie, British, electronic, and trying to find a place to land in this cruel world.

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Owens approached a deck of metal knobs wearing a kind of hoodie with the texture of a raincoat. Her hair looked unchanged from the cover of her self-titled debut, a swooning slab of dreamy techno that was released by the small Oslo label Smalltown Supersound last year. Before going solo, Owens played bass in a London band called The History of Apple Pie. Part of the wave of nugaze nostalgists that enjoyed brief popularity on the tail end of landfill indie, their catchy riffs attracted the praise of Liam Gallagher and the disdain of classical rockists like Steve Hyden, who panned their first record  as not “terribly deep or meaningful.” Agreeing maybe, Owens left the group before their second record and, instead, embraced the otherness of the electronic throb. Her press release claimed tutelage by names like Ghost Culture and Daniel Avery and she attracted significant write-ups for her remix of a Jenny Hval track. Hval appeared again, with a rework of a different track appearing on Kelly Lee Owens alongside Owens’s own murmuring sigh. But Owens lacks Hval’s exuberant confidence, the way Hval can just say “I want to sing religiously,” and suddenly create an electronic hymn. Instead, she eventually leans behind her deck and spits out 4X4s in an austere silence that would work in London. But Brooklynites don’t dance.

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Jenny Hval 2

I happened to see Hval the next day. She was performing at MoMa PS1, an outer borough addendum that occasionally encourages indie artists to come by and bring their artier chops. Most notably, the National once performed the High Violet–cut “Sorrow” for six hours straight there in a feat of “durational performance” for listener and performer alike. Hval’s ambitions were less misanthropic. She rendered the expressionistic strokes of 2016’s Blood Bitch into clear-eyed pronouncements. “Some people find it painful/But all I feel is connected,” her chilly voice panging through PS1’s spheric Volkswagen Dome, its patrons politely seated. The cavernous trappings of public performance are Hval’s forte and a small catwalk was set up to allow her to escape the standatory rockstar stance. She would use it to bend down and sing as if praying. In a more direct attempt to evade capture, she later sang as if addressing a computer, turning away from the audience and voicing lyrics colorfully provided, we were told, by a Chatbot computer program. Projected onto a screen alongside bright primary colors, it felt uncannily like an office PowerPoint presentation.

Jenny Hval

Hval and Owens are both musicians born out of and frustrated by the expectations of rock guitar’s ruthless genus. On the first track of her breakout LP, Apocalypse, girl, Hval implores “What is soft dick rock?” and it’s not surprising that the answer in in the atmospherics of dance music. “In the disco, the spotlight is on everybody,” Ralf Hütter once opined and the democratic impulse is pursued. Their answers, at least so far, have been to render the banal transcendental. Hval’s songs are personal essays that turn on themselves and Ownes does the reverse, adding house music drops to dream pop’s murkiness. These are events that demand more than the theatrical applause we are trained to conclude performances with but maybe we don’t know the moves yet.