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Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh - Overloaded Ark

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Artist: Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Album: Overloaded Ark

Label: Drag City

Review date: Oct. 8, 2009

Last year’s self-titled initial outing by singer/multi-instrumentalists Helena Espvall (Espers, countless folk and improv sessions) and Masaki Batoh (Ghost) is a peak moment in both individuals’ careers. Its blend of Scandinavian folk tunes and pan-ethnic string melodies was so strong and right that it set the bar quite high. While Overloaded Ark doesn’t top its predecessor, it scotches any notions of a sophomore slump by staking out its own discrete territory.

This time the duo, who were born respectively in Sweden and Japan, have drawn on the sounds of other places and times, and afforded more space for other musicians to make their mark. Espvall’s Renaissance-vintage cello lines, Kazuo Ogine’s airy recorders, and older-instrument specialist Haruo Kondo’s droning hurdy gurdy, crumhorn, cornamuse, and raushpfeife all evoke Europe before the age of steam, while Junzo Tateiwa’s hand drums sound like they were jetted in from the edge of the Sahara. Batoh is the music’s modernizer; his plangent acoustic guitar links the music to several decades of 20th century folk-rock practice, while his squalling electric guitar and rushing electronics keep it in the now.

Overloaded Ark leads off with nearly half an hour of instrumentals. Opener “Little Blue Dragon” is a short sharp charge of feverish double-reed melody laid over galloping drums and boiling feedback that sounds more lusty and pagan than anything on the first record. The much longer, more episodic title track sustains the exotic, spooky mood with vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding double-reed melodies and raygun-blast electronics snaking in and out of an undulating groove. “Until Tomorrow” is gentler, constructed from layers of dancing synth accents, patient acoustic guitar progressions, and puffs of wordless vocalizing that just cry out for a Herzog-ian tableau to drift over.

“Sueno Con Serpientes,” the first foray into song, also represents another decisive turn from the first album’s template. Instead of Swedish folk songs, Espvall renders Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez’s “Sueño Con Serpientes” in Spanish, albeit so Scandinavian-accented that it sounds like some weird hybrid tongue. Her other vocal turns are minute-long miniatures; “Tourdion” is a delicate French melody originally composed in the 16th century, and “Vem Kan Segla” is her sole concession to her Nordic heritage. They feel like brackets framing “Over Luminous Land,” another episodic, ancient-sounding instrumental. The album finishes with Batoh’s sole vocal, the Japanese-language duet “Shami No Umi,” whose gamboling acoustic guitars and spacey bridge hew closer to Ghostly convention.

Batoh and Espvall’s unabashed exoticism opens them up to charges of escapism, but the album’s title and interior pictures of Nagasaki in 1945 tell a different story. If they’re nostalgic, it’s for a time when it seemed less likely that humanity could exterminate itself, and the beauty with which they render these select scraps of the past and comments from the present argue that humanity has achieved something worth saving.

By Bill Meyer

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