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Avia Gardner - More Than Tongue Can Tell

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Artist: Avia Gardner

Album: More Than Tongue Can Tell

Label: intr_version

Review date: Jan. 31, 2006

Avia Gardner, as explained by the Montreal-based duo of vocalist Jenna Robertson and multi-disciplinary artist and sound sculptor Mitchell Akiyama, is “a persona teased out of photograph.” They later emphasize that Avia is also most definitely real. Originally Dorothy Gardner, she lived in Indiana, worked as a state auditor there and worked to improve women’s prisons. Robertson and Akiyama have tracked down those who knew her in order to hear more stories of her. Avia Gardner (the group) then is another way the pair have come up with to help them get closer to a woman they obviously feel strongly about. It’s a way that creatively engages with the past, one that goes beyond the dead-end of nostalgia.

This seven-song debut EP (it clocks about thirty minutes) plays at times like a battered film from the early days of cinema. Films then seemed like moving portraits, static and limited in action. Only by stitching together many episodes did a story emerge. Akiyama takes such a course, pasting together dry looping piano figures, roughly bowed violins, tangles of picked strings, stark brushed drum patterns and field recordings into a kaleidoscopic background of acoustic timbres for Robertson’s disciplined voice. At times Akiyama even overlays many images of her voice, cutting it up and echoing it till becomes an auditory hallucination.

Most of the rhythms here move in a lilting three. Robertson matches this lilt with an insistent phrasing, emphasizes each and every word, even each individual syllable, or then articulates a long phrase in short spaces. These contrasts between stasis and motion pervade the album, finding expression not only in Robertson’s singing but also in Akiyama’s arrangements. The title track moves from its water-treading tempo to a cacophonous rush of percussion. “Dread and Dreaming” (also here in remix form) shifts from a languorous stumble of sawed strings and lumbering bass to a brittle ballad built up from Robertson’s pleas and terse, gently echoed violin strums.

A biography More Than Tongue Can Tell is not, for Akiyama and Robertson bring us no closer, either through song or description on the exquisitely designed sleeve, to the details of the person. “I walk through this swamp making maps of your body,” sings Robertson on the title track. Is it Robertson singing about Gardner, or Gardner speaking of some unknown third party? Maybe it’s both, maybe it’s neither. We get to engage with the duo’s interaction with the historical figure, which in many ways makes for a more exploratory, open-ended listening experience. If Avia Gardner does eventually get her biography, I’ll be there to read it.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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