So, Ben Chasny, of Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance, has teamed up with Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio. Given the corrosive tendencies of their other bands (this is strictly not a side-project from anything else), you might be expecting fireworks, or at least the sturdy drone-work of their previous collaboration as Balsa Fingers. In fact, what you get is a rootsy, almost ambient aura, with Chasny’s elegant finger-picking forming a placid background to Ambrogio’s softest ever vocals. Whispers of electric feedback rise and fall, organ, piano and harmonium make illicit cameos, but the chemistry between the two performers, if combustible, sparks a cold flame. The end result has been touted as ‘new’ folk, but it doesn’t need that qualifier. With the cool detachment and stripped-back sound, it is often closer to classic Mazzy Star.
The vocals resemble Hope Sandoval through the first half of the album; later, Ambrogio’s way with a lilting delivery recalls Patti Smith, or even, with her seeming ambivalence to her voice’s place in the mix, a feminine version of early Michael Stipe. Meanwhile, Chasny’s guitar playing is exotic enough to half-suggest, within the space of a few songs, various influences. West Hartford has an acoustic backing that he rebuilds from the loosest, rattling and twanging, like a gypsy or Eastern European player. His delicate flourishes on opener Wild White bring to mind a sensual, imaginary Arabia, while the churchy organ and pedal guitar on Solar System were more obviously the product of the writing process, in his mother’s shed, in Seattle.
The album has its own inner narrative that propels the listener along. The hushed background noise comes to the fore on Thread, where the album climaxes in a wall of dissonant sound that never feels gratuitous or over-done, cleansing the listener’s palette for the comforting coda of the last two songs.