Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Drag City

Last summer a friend of mine best described my taste in music as “Japandinavian”: a mixture of Swedish pop/folk and Japanese psychedelic noise. I’ll admit, they’re fairly disparate styles, destined rarely to meet, but I’m constantly holding out hope that some magical spawn of their dialectic will cross my path. In this light, Helena Espvall and Masaki Batoh’s one-off jam project is a tailor-made revelation. She plays cello in freak-folk weirdo band The Espers and he’s one of the modern gurus of Japanese folk noise with Ghost. They’re both known for their improvisational prowess and, after a chance meeting, decided to let their mutual muse move them and record an album together. The result is a wide range of loose, rustic workouts, where full-on drone experiments bloom into new arrangements of Swedish and Finnish folk songs — “Kling Klang” and “Uti Var Hage” being the best of these — and bend back into Batoh’s mossy tributes to the natural world.

On record, Espvall takes command of these songs by providing vocals, acoustic guitar and cello drones, while Batoh colors the surrounding aether with electric guitar, hurdy gurdy, and assorted other ancient ephemera. Throughout, they find a great balance between form and freedom, the indistinct haze of a daydream and an ever-present anchor in reality. It’s the same kind of mystical slant to folk music that Appendix Out perfected: otherworldly but not wholly alien.

Batoh is most strongly felt on his original “Zeranium,” the alternately feverish and drug-addled spin on Son House’s blues classic “Death Letter” and on the gorgeously wistful/tense closer “Kyklopes.” This track is the closest the duo gets to Ghost’s art-folk sound collage, but it’s amazing to hear Espvall’s cello threading heavily through Batoh’s sparse clatterings.

Most of the music on here is largely unscripted, and what ended up on this album could’ve easily taken a radically different path on another take. Luckily, I was able to catch the final show of the short tour Espvall and Batoh booked in support of this album. The songs took on a radically different shape, with Batoh’s looped, heavily-affected noise turning the ambient opener “Polska” into a howling maelstrom. The duo’s sound still floated along with an air of formlessness, but it wound its way through more sinister and ominous territory than what was translated on their recorded versions.

Both live and recorded, these songs and non-songs have a simple beauty that would be lost if overly studied. Since it’s fairly unlikely these two will get time away from their respective outfits to tour together again, this album might be your only change to experience true Japandinavian music at its finest. Don’t miss it.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com

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