Saturday, December 03, 2011

CD Review: Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone - Departure of Reason

Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone
Departure of Reason
(Thirsty Ear)

Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Jessica Pavone (viola) have played together in Anthony Braxton's 12+1tet and the Thirteenth Assembly, and they've each developed respectable careers on their own, in a variety of settings. Halvorson has been one of the most talked about modern guitarists in the past year or two, thanks in part to her trio and quintet albums. Among numerous other projects as a co-leader or supporting member, she also plays in People, a sort of free rock duo with drummer Kevin Shea. Pavone co-leads the groups Army of Strangers and the Pavones, and has received funding to compose several extended compositions, including the album Songs of Synastry and Solitude (which, just to prove the variety of influences here, was inspired by a Leonard Cohen album).

If the duo had been around in the early '90s, it's easy to imagine them as a fixture on the burgeoning Knitting Factory scene, when the club's original locale was releasing compilations and booking acts that combined uninhibited improvisation with music that drew on art rock or folk or something hard to peel apart with words, due to the blending of it. (It was usually summarized as "Downtown New York.") This is especially true when the two of them sing (on three of the 10 tracks), and their sullen voices are matched by equally obtuse lyrics. "The Object of Desire," regularly gets hung up mid-thought: "In the city city city city city/of events... it's the object object object object object/sometime before then." The effect creates intrigue more than abrasion, and makes them sound closer to Mary Timony or Rasputina's Melora Creager if they hung around with the college improv crowd.

Some of the songs on Departure of Reason (the fourth Halvorson/Pavone album and second for Thirsty Ear) sound like madrigals. Halvorson sets up a 2/2 riff, hitting a low chord and answering with a high one (and at times she does really smack the strings on her big hollowbody gitbox) and the viola plays a simple melody with an equally brawny tone ("That Other Thing").

The sparse sound of the duo occasionally would benefit from the addition of more instruments to fill in the surroundings, especially when they're both playing similar parts. But Halvorson and Pavone never like to stick with one mood for too long and many of the songs naturally flow into new movements, which sometimes require a check of the track listing to see if a new song has started. "New October" offers one of the best examples of this, starting with a minor folk melody, gradually bringing in ugly, atonal chords behind it and turning into a free metal freakout where Pavone sounds like she too is banging away on six strings. Halvorson regularly steps on her effect that bends notes to the extent that they sound like they're coming from a warped guitar (which presumably is too extreme to come from a simple whammy bar). The sound can be pretty similar with each use, and it detracted a little from her otherwise excellent Saturn Sings album from last year. But now she seems to have advanced her use of it, distorting it even further to a point where it picks up the sound of her hand, or pick, attacking the strings.

The previous albums by the duo struck something of a balance between their songwriting and improvisational side, making a clear jump from the song structures to the free skronk. This time, the transition feels more seamless, like their ability to blend the two has reached a new level of precision. It's jarring, but interesting, music.

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