Album Review: Lotte Kestner - Lost Songs
When you, or I, describe music as “cinematic,” there is an implication that it is going to be something enormous within its scope—epic, if you will. Something grand, and sweeping—reminiscent or similar to a scene from a film—dramatic, emotional, or, yes, even perhaps gigantic in its magnitude.
“Cinematic” doesn’t seem, at first, like the right word to use when describing the music found within Lost Songs, but let me explain.
And this would have been around a decade ago, when I used to go home over the lunch hour.
This was when my wife and I were a one car family—the first time we were a one car family, when we had been, for around six years already, sharing my 2002 Chevy Cavalier. It was never in great shape to begin with, and the winters were never kind to it.
And this would have been during an extremely bleak part of the winter—January, maybe February, where the cold is biting and there is no reprieve in sight from the dirty, jagged piles of snow. I used to go home over the lunch hour to check on our companion rabbits.
And this would have been when we were living with two rabbits—Annabell and her sister Sophie, and I would coast the short distance from my office to our house, tidy their litter pans, top off their pile of Timothy hay, and give them each a piece of cilantro as a treat before I would go back to work.
This would have been when I was a little over a year into a job that I would, eventually grow to find incredibly frustrating and not very challenging—but at the time, I was being paid (what I thought was) a lot of money for, truthfully, doing very little.
I have this memory of getting into my car to go home over lunch—there was something wrong with the ventilation system so it was extremely difficult to get the interior warm, and keep the windows clear of frost on days where the temperature was below zero. But I can remember the stinging cold of the car, and the way the piles of snow and ice reflected and magnified the brightness of the sunlight, making everything blindingly bright as I backed out of my parking space and pulled out onto the street—soundtracking this seemingly ordinary moment, from a CD-R in the car’s stereo was a melancholic, sparse cover of the Billy Idol song, “Eyes Without A Face,” performed by Anna-Lynne Williams.
I don’t know why this specific instance with her music has stuck with me for roughly ten years, but, within that instance, there was something incredibly cinematic about way the somber warmth of her keyboard, and her always beautiful, always fragile voice, served as the score within this fragment of time, while I drove the short distance—almost always with the slightest hint of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.
You can play it through the speakers of your stereo, but Lost Songs is the kind of album that is intended for close listening—it even asks on the first page of the liner notes that you experience it through headphones.
And I think there has always been this kind of intimate quiet, yet extremely vivid and cinematic quality to Williams’ music—the first time I wrote about her solo work under her Lotte Kestner moniker was shortly after I began Anhedonic Headphones in early 2013; in my review of her album The Bluebird of Happiness, I mention its intimacy, and refer to the record as has having “an overwhelming sense of melancholy,” making it the kind of thing you could only listen to at night in a “poorly lit living room in a small apartment.”
Lost Songs, coming nine years later, has a similar aesthetic—spectral, evocative, quietly cinematic. “Cold,” or “icy” aren’t the right words, because they imply this record isn’t inviting—and it is, but there is a very palpable chill throughout—a kind of longing; the space that forms between solitude and loneliness. And it doesn’t have to be a poorly lit living room in a small apartment, but it is the kind of delicate, secretive, almost whispered record that effortlessly, gracefully, and with unabashed honesty, creates the perfect score for intimate, emotional conversations shared between two close friends.
I no longer have that job—the one that paid me what I thought was quite a bit for doing what I thought was very little. I was both unceremoniously and unsurprisingly laid of in May of 2014 because in the end I was, truly, being paid entirely too much and the company—an extremely small family business, it no longer had the amount of work coming in that could sustain both the husband and wife who owned it paying themselves, then paying me.
They somehow trudged on for a few years—I am completely uncertain how they did it, before selling both the business and the building it was in, moving away from town, presumably to the second home—a vacation home—they owned in upstate New York.
I no longer have that car—the 2002 Chevy Cavalier. We became a two car family in 2015, buying a new car that my wife and I would lovingly refer to as “the good car” since it was not a continual source of trepidatious, regular repairs. The Cavalier trudged on for three more years—I’m uncertain how, with an exhaust system that was completely shot, before the brakes went out while I was driving it back to work after going home over my lunch hour.
Unable to be safely driven, it sat underneath a gray cover, backed into the far edge of our driveway for eight months before I figured out how to charitably donate it—it was sold at an auto auction somewhere.
We no longer live with companion rabbits.
Much has changed for Anna-Lynne Williams too since my quietly cinematic moment with her cover of “Eyes Without A Face,” and since the release of The Bluebirds of Happiness.
She no longer goes by Williams, actually—shortly after the release of her last effort as Lotte Kestner Off White, she got married, going by Anna-Lynne Long now; roughly a year after that, she gave birth to her daughter.
Long had not so much left music behind as it had taken a back seat to other priorities in her life—and Lost Songs, as she explained in message about the album when it was announced at the beginning of the year, is the the last thing she, understandably, might be putting out for a bit. It is less of an album in the traditional sense—or even in the sense of Off White or The Bluebird of Happiness, as it is a collection of two newly recorded cover songs, and a handful of tunes in various unfinished states that she, with the help of a few collaborators, opted to revisit with the intent to complete.
And like the way Long’s music—especially here on Lost Songs, is still quietly cinematic in the way it could score an intimate, perhaps late night, conversation, Long herself quietly worked on assembling the record in what she calls “rare hours stolen” while caring for her daughter during the onset of the pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns in 2020.
Musically, in the way the pieces chosen for Lost Songs are arranged, and the relatively sparse instrumentation, it’s a collection that simmers slowly from the moment it begins, right through until the end. And it is a simmer Long never loses control of—the songs here are never at risk of boiling over—nor is that ever Long’s intent. And it is less about creating a sense of tension with her music, because this is not a tense album per se, but rather, maintaining the quiet cinematic feeling and building a slightly heightened sense of emotion throughout.
Long’s ability to sustain the slow burn across Lost Songs is impressive—equally as admirable is just how cohesive this collection sounds from start to finish. It could have run the risk of sounding cobbled together, or at least somewhat disjointed simply because of its assemblage through bits and pieces of recordings from over the last decade, but Long and her collaborators are able to avoid that almost entirely. And that cohesion in sound speaks to the type of instrumentation and the overall aesthetic that Long has favored using since her first album as Lotte Kestner—2008’s China Mountain.
Musically, Lost Songs is comprised of myriad keyboard tones or the piano, along with mostly acoustic guitar—there are some atmospheric electric flourishes midway through on the incredibly stirring “Becalmed,” contributed by Chris Cunningham, who also adds a layer of additional vocals. Long, herself, used to play the guitar—both with the band she fronted in the late 1990s and through the first part of the 2000s, the folk/shoegaze outfit Trespassers William, and on a number of her earlier solo recordings, but over the last decade, she has struggled with severe tendonitis that has more or less left her unable to play the instrument—the songs here that do feature her playing the guitar are among the older recordings of the set.
Long favors the keyboard now, outside of her voice, obviously, as her main instrument—though in the aforementioned note where she detailed the slow process of constructing the album as she was able, her tendonitis makes the keyboard, at times, a challenge, and the pieces that were among the most recent to be recorded for this collection were done through layering what she could perform with her right hand only.
There are reasons that Long requests in the liner notes for listeners to enjoy Lost Songs through headphones—reasons outside of the quiet, intimate nature of the record as a whole, like the small details tucked into the production. Among the most noticeable is “After Me,” which blends a voice memo recording from singer, songwriter, and longtime friend of Long’s Damien Jurado, who is credited on the album twice for acoustic guitar contributions (the other is “Weaving.”)
The quality of Jurado’s contribution here is great—airy from his phone presumably picking up the natural reverb of the room he was playing in, and it is fascinating to hear the minor, contrasting details in music, with the way Long recorded her own vocals with little, if any, noticeable reverb. The result is not jarring, or disorienting, but rather, it creates an even more personable feeling to the song, and plays with the depth of musicality, like someone is in another room of a house, playing the guitar, while someone else is sitting right next to you, quietly singing along—a near whisper right into your ear.
Long works the best, though, as she has in the past on a number of the self-released collections of covers from her Bandcamp page, and here, when she is playing what almost sounds like a toy piano—there is a slight thunking sound that works itself into the warmth of the keyboard tones on the album’s second single, “Slip,” and the standout “You Must Have,” which arrives after the halfway point. Both of them bored on having a sliver of whimsy to them, simply because of that chintzy, toy instrument sound, but they are both extremely serious in the way they are executed—“Slip” is extremely pensive and somber; “You Must Have” has an unshakable sense of melancholy, and the way they are both performed and mixed creates some of the most intimate and cinematically quiet moments on the record.
If you’ve followed Long’s career at all up to this point, it should not be a surprise to learn that Lost Songs is a lyricist’s album.
Outside of her myriad, one-off vocal contributions for other artists, the band she fronted for well over a decade before it fractured near the end of the 2000s, the duo she formed with friend Robert Gomez (Ormonde), and her body of work as a solo artist, Long is also a poet—she’s released two collections of poetry, one in 2013, and the most recent in 2017.
And there is an extremely gorgeous, poetic nature to a number of the phrases she turns here—some of which will stay with you, as they have lingered for me, well after you have finished listening.
The feeling that has been present in a number of Long’s original solo tunes, and is certainly present throughout a majority of Lost Songs is a visceral sense of longing, or yearning. I would say that the way she writes is so evocative you could almost touch this feeling, but it is so strong, and so ever present, it’s already touching you—and in many instances, it is unwilling to let you go, like the devastating opening line to “After Me,” where Long sings, “I can’t help it if my heart keeps me closer to the door,” or the surprising, “What if I plead to someone I don’t believe,” in “Becalmed,” which also creates one of the album’s most dramatic moments in its climax as Long and featured performer Chris Cunningham share vocal duties in creating a hypnotic mantra that deconstructs the notion of “the calm before the storm,” by repeating, “I haven’t found my calm. I haven’t found my storm.”
Lost Songs’ two standout moments arrive within its first half, and are sequenced back to back—one of the two covers Long opted include and one of her originals, which is among the finest she has ever written. And it was during my first listen through Lost Songs when I was initially floored by both how beautiful and how compelling of a song “Colors That Did Not Exist” is, and it is during every additional listen that I am still stopped in my tracks by its emotional weight.
And for as visceral, overall, as Long’s sense of melancholic yearning is across the board on Lost Songs, there is an equal, if not greater, sense of urgency, and immediacy, in the way she plays with that longing on “Colors That Did Not Exist”—along with that urgency is also the slightest hint of desperation, or at least a pleading that comes from the kind of dizzying feelings she is writing about, and writing from.
“Oh, I swear when I think of your mouth it’s only making words,” she sings as the song begins to unfold. “But some words are more dangerous than an axe in the woods,” then, momentarily, taking the song into a surprisingly and subtly seductive place—“Or a kiss…I think we should.”
The resolve of the song arrives in the way Long incorporates the titular expression—“If we kiss, it would make colors that did not exist when we first started.” And musically, “Colors” is set to both progression of layered keyboard tones—heady, with faint, echoing ripples after each chord is formed, and lush, delicate plucks of the acoustic guitar, creating a perfect environment for Long’s fragile vocals to tumble onto.
Long, for me, has always been a very gifted, incredibly thoughtful songwriter—and throughout her career, she has also become well known for her impressive abilities at reconstructing and reimagining cover songs. On their breakthrough album, Different Stars, Trespassers William included a slowed down, hushed cover of the shoegaze classic “Vapour Trail” by Ride, and their takes on “The Rainbow Connection” (utterly heartbreaking), and The Smith’s “There is A Light That Never Goes Out” (swooning and gorgeous) were included on compilation albums in the early 2010s; Long, as a solo artist, released an entire collection of covers, Stolen, in 2011, and her Bandcamp page features two volumes of myriad home recorded takes on songs from a surprising variety of artists.
Her most well known, or widest known cover arrangement is her sparse, haunted performance of Beyonce’s “Halo”—it was originally featured on The Bluebird of Happiness, and then years later, was included in an episode of the HBO series “The Young Pope,” as well as within the series’ accompanying soundtrack album.
There are two cover included on Lost Songs—and in speaking with me when she was a guest on an episode of the Anhedonic Headphones podcast, Long explained there was a point when she almost considered the record “finished,” but had she released it at that time, both of those songs wouldn’t have been included.
Lost Songs concludes with one of those covers—and in her message to detail the processes used to put the album together, Long explains her version of Nada Surf’s “Inside of Love” was primarily recorded in one take; her interpretation of Billie Eilish’s moody “Everything I Wanted,” she added, was one of the album’s more laborious endeavors.
A non-album track released at the end of 2019, “Everything I Wanted” was my point of access to Billie Eilish’s music—somber and pulsating, reflective in its lyricism, it wasn’t so much an antithesis to the songs from her debut full length, but for me, it was a song that that was both approachable, and identifiable.
Long’s cover of “Everything I Wanted” is not exactly a drastic reinterpretation of the original, but she does play with its structure, and removes the coursing electronic rhythm—instead, it unfolds over woozy synthesizer tones, chilly piano, and the acoustic guitar—the latter contributed by her husband, singer and songwriter Kevin Long. The most notable adjustment made is what Long does with the original’s epilogue—putting the pensive questioning, “If I knew it all then would I do it again? Would I do it again? If they knew what they said would go straight to my head, what would they say instead,” within the song’s opening moments, then returning to them again at the very end.
For anyone familiar with Eilish’s original, it is a little disorienting at first to hear this reorganization, but Long makes it work, and it doesn’t so much shift the intent or the importance of the song, but it asks the listener to think about it, and appreciate it in a different way,; and this, once again, shows how exemplary Long is at taking an existing, and often well known song and making it her own, while still honoring what lies at the heart of it.
During the conversation I had with Long while we were recording her episode of the podcast, she mentioned she hadn’t written any songs since becoming pregnant with her daughter—though, perhaps because of the efforts she put in to finishing Lost Songs and promoting it as best as she is able to (raising a toddler and the never ending pandemic makes it difficult to perform live as a means of promotion), she is seemingly, albeit slowly, returning to her creative and artistic inclinations, often through poetry—Long has taken to sharing poems she composes while stuck in traffic, or before going to sleep, written through the notes app on her phone or as a voice memo, on the Lotte Kestner Facebook page and on Instagram.
Lost Songs, arriving slightly over four years after both Long’s last album under the Lotte Kestner name, as well as just prior to important changes in her personal life, does not mark the “end” of her career as a singer and songwriter. If anything, as indicated by Long’s own admission that this might be the last thing she puts out for “a bit,” it serves as an ellipsis, as well as a reminder—the ellipses is for her, leaving the door open to return to music as she is able, when she is able, and the reminder is for both her, and us, the listeners.
We all have parts of our lives, or interests, that we have not so much “lost” interest or enthusiasm for—maybe we have—but that for one reason or another, we have left them behind. Regardless of how long it has been since you, or I, pursued these interests, there are still reminders that are unavoidable.
For Long, Lost Songs is a reminder of a 20+ year career and expansive body of work—a way to reflect and say, “This is something I used to do, and someday, I may want to do it again.” The reminder for us is two fold—for fans of Long’s work as a solo artist, as well as her output with Trespassers William, it is nudge to go back and revisit those songs and albums, but the greater reminder is that same opportunity for reflection to think about what pursuits we have put an ellipsis on, and consider how, and when, one might return.
As an album, Lost Songs easily transcends its conceit of being a collection of unfinished songs through its focus and cohesive nature, and its devastating, harrowing beauty.