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Born Heller
Born Heller

Last year, the Children's Hour's SOS JFK album introduced the world at large to the vivid vocals of Josephine Foster. Even though they hail from Chicago, the duo mine a fine line in flowery folk-revivalism, their gear sounding as if of another time and place, having more in common with the commons and fields and magpie meadows of English folk-revival records than with the windy city in which they currently dwell. Central to such an evocative effect is Foster's pretty presence, the songbird's singing fluttering over florid blossoms, turning a wheeling wing to arc skyward, and seeming to toss and pitch on the whimsy of the wind. And it's this voice that is center-stage, again, in Born Heller, her other folkie duo.

Whilst the Children's Hour were already working with a largely stripped-down sound, Born Heller take this even further, sketching desolate environs whose Spartan strings cast settings that evoke darker visions, forsaking folk's winsome woodland wonder to render those same woods as the eerie, spooky tangles of trees into which folk wander and never return. In a more modernist fashion, there's a certain kind of "experimentalism" present in their songs, the tonal austerity of strummed mandolin and deftly-bowed double-bass an arrangement on which the album leans often, Born Heller essentially specializing in a solemn, modernist riff on folk.

"Good Times" sets Foster's vocal at a distance whilst courting discordance, its staccato mandolin and striking stabs of bowed double-bass almost antagonistic, and the mournful "Mountain Song" is a lamentation culminating in the repeated refrain "call me disappointed," where Foster's more restrained vocal is match'd with harmonic harmonies from a shimmering violin. On "I Am a Guest in Here," the bass is struck in intermittent strokes of creaks and moans whilst Foster flicks her wrist over thrums of harp that keep a solemn tick-tock — these the night-time sounds of an empty house, those the surrounds in which Foster's star-cast wails (which hit almost self-descriptive metaphor when she repeats "it flies like a kite/ it flies like a kite") stage what is almost a soliloquy. "Pansies, Will You Ever Grow?" is, musically, the most stark, dark arrangement, but this desolation works in wonderful counter with Foster's singing, which is, here, at its most florid, almost operatic in scope as she loses herself, and any inhibitions, in the musical moment that the duo conjure.

Fosterís voice reminds me a lot of Alicia Sufit, the Magic Carpet vocalist who cut a great solo record, Love and the Maiden, in 1974. Tonally, the two don't quite match; Sufit's singing more robust and reedy, Foster favoring fragility and tremulous tremors; but there's a similarity in spirit which strikes me every time I listen to the Children's Hour. In the barren environs of Born Heller, it's not quite as striking, but in the album's one straight folkie moment, the absolutely beautiful "The Left Garden," I'm reminded of why I feel that way, as Foster's chirping voice trills recollected tales of trips into a quaint kind of gardenesque anti-Eden hell, where suffering and death are "the art of man that every animal knows."

by Anthony Carew

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