Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lay Down Your Head - Scrambler/Seequil, The Abandoned House EP; Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone – Thin Air

In the last three or so years, the Brooklyn scene I associate with the Tea Lounge and Bar4 and Issue Project Room has taken a turn towards embracing song forms, especially the folk song, with improvisation and extended technique shot through its veins to mutate it into the latest breed of creature sharing lineage with everything from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s readings of “The Old Rugged Cross” to Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”.

Scrambler/Seequil, principally the work of guitarist Mike Gamble and vocalist-painter Devin Febboriello with assistance from Walker Adams (and, live, occasionally Ari Folman-Cohen and Conor Elmes) grew out of Gamble’s solo guitar and loops project Scrambler and this debut EP is evenly split between instrument tracks and those with vocals.  Forgive me, on my copy, the vocal tracks have names but the instrumentals do not. 

One of the great pleasures of The Abandoned House EP is that every time you’ve got it pegged it finds something else in the landscape to which it can draw your attention, without making you feel like you don’t know where you are anymore.  When “Rest For Now” kicks in with its playful taunting vocals, lilting finger-picked guitar and loping country rhythm, it’s easy to settle in for another record on the mainstream edge of freak-folk, but by the following instrumental track that rhythm reappears in a haze of reverb and these chopped cymbal sounds worthy of prime-era Squarepusher and you realize it’s a stranger bird flying around your house. 

Lyrics about the absence in our lives and the effort to build new experiences out of the building blocks of what we already knew delivered with a voice like old leather cured in bourbon and layers that eschew lo-fi for a series of shifting branches that let the light hit each step down in a different way until its dancing patterns can’t be ignored.  The record of a work-in-progress, sure, but watch out:  there’s something here that’s going to to be so dazzling when it blooms in full that you’ll be scrambling to figure out how it got there.

I remember the first time I saw Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone as a duo, at the ACME Art Company on one of the fantastic shows Gerard Cox books periodically in town and I was stunned by the sympathetic interplay and also by the bursts of aggression.  This was music that deserved to be heard loud and listened to intently at the same time.  I’d previously seen Halvorson melt faces with Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant and may have seen Pavone that same trip to NYC in a different group, but the potency of this duo was something else.  I’ve seen them a number of times since, together and apart, and I never fail to check in on what they’re up to.

Thin Air, their third album as a duo and first release on Thirsty Ear, drifts through similarly dream-tainted space as the Scrambler/Seequil record, but comes there from a place of having played together and worked with each other’s vocabulary for a long enough time the moves are more intuitive and the timing sharper.  The lyrics are almost always sung in unison, and often buried in instrumental harmonies so you have to strain and when you do catch them, it’s an under-layer of orange against the colors of blue and brown you already saw, it’s what’s darkening and deepening the tunes.  If you want to remind yourself what it feels like to hear a record and think you’re flying, Thin Air


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