Thanks to anonymous cover-sleeve art featuring an Ouroboros wrapped around the letter “C” (a piss take on the copyright logo), the lone full-length album from Leslie Winer wound up at the front of John Peel’s massive record collection in the “C” section. Peel might not have known where to file the artist behind this record, but he did call it “the definition of a hidden gem.” Witch turned out to be the work of an ex-model from the Berkshires named Leslie Winer, whose career trajectory remains a peculiar one.
Winer befriended William S. Burroughs and Jean-Michel Basquiat while still a teen on New York’s downtown scene, before becoming a model for the Elite Agency in the ’80s. She then wound up in London near the turn of the decade, where she worked with the likes of Renegade Soundwave and garnered a writing credit on Sinead O’Connor’s first album. Winer also made a handful of strange, drugged tracks accentuating her deadpan yet mordant spoken vocals. These songs (which comprise Witch) wafted through the London underground at the turn of the decade, anticipating what would soon be called “trip-hop” when Massive Attack’s Blue Lines dropped.
Despite the revisionism inherent in such a genre tag, Witch sounds like little else of that era, even 20 years on. A pastiche of uncleared samples reconfigured into smoke-saturated dubs with tablas and drum machines, it was rarely available when released in 1993, so this is a welcome return. “Flove” re-imagines nyabinghi drumming through the lens of Basic Channel. Winer utters a line about “invent(ing) a machine that can slow and accelerate time” before the mesmerizing track does just that, turning her baritone voice into a flicker.
Which is not to suggest that Winer’s voice is mere decoration. Much like her mentor Burroughs, Winer uses her words in a manner that is by turns dreamlike, subversive and politically defiant. She and her breakbeat might sound seductive on “N1 Ear,” but it’s Marianne Faithfull by way of riot grrrl, and Winer is angry. “If I ask my doctor too many questions/ I’m neurotic and I need pills,” she flatly states. “And ’cause I can’t get safe birth control/ while some fucker is roaming the moon.” She then follows that up not with a threat but a promise: “When I hit you, you’ll feel it.” It’s a kiss that feels like a hit.