Honestly, I’m still at a loss as to why this 12″–an assembly of three remixed tracks off 2013’s full-length Sleeper–exists. Carmen Hillestad, alias Carmen Villain, who ended a successful modeling career three years ago to focus on playing and writing music, released Sleeper this past March, bringing with it a delicately crafted blend of ethereal psych-rock and lo-fi nineties grit. The vocals on that album–the best and most conspicuous aspect of Villain’s performance–seemed to by turns float over and grab at the melodies, always with a palpable undertone of something ominous in the background. The first single off that album, “Lifeissin,” struck that balance exquisitely, creating out of Villain’s voice a persona that was empathetic as well as occasionally becoming a bit obscured and even scary. Unadorned bored-but-beautiful vocals, which, at some points, channelled Nico of The Velvet Underground & Nico, made creepy lyrics (“Stories be told, this is a life, open the curtains/Do you believe I’m going to hell?”) creepier.
But the least satisfying aspects of Sleeper–the album’s floating directionlessness that couldn’t, for all its distortion-licked guitar lines and catchy, cyclical vocal hooks, carry momentum through all twelve tracks–can only be magnified through remix. The original album needed more grabbing and less floating. On the most recent EP, Villain abandons all semblance of storytelling in the vocals in favor of creating an entirely atmospheric sound. Her voice has no life of its own on this recording, and merely operates in service to the instrumentals.
Which would be fine, if the original versions of the songs didn’t depend so heavily on the persona Villain created to fit them when she released her first album. The mysterious, mysteriously dark character that we first encountered moving through Sleeper does not really make an appearance on this newly envisioned collection of tracks. However, since the songs were initially created with a heavier vocal presence, the listening experience feels lacking, as if there’s a giant hole in the sound.
“Most of my songs are about escaping something–escaping this weird vacuum, an unsatisfying world,” Villain has said. Indeed, the three extended tracks on this album– “Dreamo (Peaking Lights Remix),” “Obedience (Bjørn Torske Remix)” and “How Much (A JD Optimo Mix)”–all have a hunted feel to them. This is mostly due to the percussion line, which carries strong weight on every track, leading the surrounding collection of instrumentals in gentle, almost playful, journeys up and down their registers. The color of the melody is always shifting slightly, never sitting still for longer than a few seconds. The attention paid to keeping the instrumentals alive and vibrant on this album adds nice dimension to each track, although (for me, at least) this is no substitution for the strong vocal presence we saw on the full-length release. That being lacking, the mystery on its way towards being developed in Sleeper now feels flattened, overly obscure and boring.
Imagine going to a play, and discovering that in this play there will be no actors and no story line, only an elaborate stage set and really, really good lighting. That’s kind of the experience of listening to Carmen Villain’s remixes. Somewhere in the reinterpretation, these songs have lost a lot of their pull since appearing as originals on Sleeper.