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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Helena Espvall And Masaki Batoh

Across the borders...
Helena Espval & Masaki Batoh
Drag City
Geographical, cultural and musical boundaries are well and truly blurred in this appealing project featuring the enigmatic Japanese guitarist Masaki Batoh (the presence behind avant-psych Ghost) and Swedish born cellist, vocalist and guitarist, Helena Espvall. Based in the USA since 2000 Espvall has plotted an impressively diverse route that has encompassed the terse experimentalism of Eugene Chadbourne and Pauline Oliveros, the pastoral post-rock folkish undertow of the group Espers and even a stint in Vashti Bunyon's US touring group.

Following an encounter with Batoh in 2006, it wasn't until the end of 2007 that the duo finally got together in Tokyo with a varied sequence of songs and improvisations. Glistening production values lend the music a radiant clarity, bringing a sharp focus to some of the traditional Swedish folk tunes they had elected to record. Their vocal harmonising on "Uti Var Hage" and the subsequent meandering postscript is reminiscent of the dreamy wanderings of the Incredible String Band.

A different but no less mesmeric idyll is crafted on the instrumental "Beneath Halo" whose ghostly high-register harmonics from Espvall's cello shiver across Batoh's simple acoustic figure. The understated simplicity of what they do, moving between courtly medieval airs, classical interludes and stripped back folky decoration has the same contemplative qualities which one would attribute to the Penguin Café Orchestra.

Alongside the straightforward songs and ballads on the album there are a couple of improvisations. Given Espvall's previous form (specifically the abrasive, not to say, abusive extremes of her 2006 solo album Nimis And Arx) and Batoh's penchant for experimental, often atonal, improvisation it might have been expected that the sounds resulting from the pair would strip paint at a 100 yards. Instead they've come up with something beautifully fragile, remarkably melodic and dare I say it, charming.

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