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+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
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Drag City

Balancing the hypnotic overtones and droning repetition of krautrock with the delicate purity of folk, Philadelphia's Espers have been making some of fringe folk's most compelling music for some time now. With their second full-length album, Espers bring their psyche-folk-drone to a new level of intensity, following the path set by the wonderful Weed Tree, and further exploring the textures that its expanded line-up permits.

The group, grown from its core of Greg Weeks, Meg Baird and Brooke Sietenson, now counts cellist Helena Espvall, drummer Otto Hauser and bass player Chris Smith among its full-time members. The interplay, particularly of the multiple kinds of stringed instruments, creates a hallucinatory web of overtones and undertones, sounds that reinforce and contradict each other in ways that are almost physically intoxicating.

The disc begins with "Dead Queen," in which high pinging space sounds gradually give way to stately finger-picked guitar patterns interlocking in a sort of archaic minuet. It's a bit reminiscent of "Stairway to Heaven" at first, but gives way to something entirely different with the vocals, the airy harmonies that coalesce around Meg Baird's crystalline voice. During the verse, the accents in this cut are subtle — the roll of mallets on cymbals, the throb of cello in amongst guitar. At the break, though, some three minutes in, the layers of stringed sounds are allowed to build into a dizzying mass, an electric guitar swooping in from the corner, gaining volume, blurring at the edges with feedback and gradually dominating the entire fabric. Then, just as suddenly, the melody re-emerges, its purity left mostly bare but modestly embellished with picked guitars and sleigh bells on the offbeats.

"Dead Queen" is folk tranquility, interrupted once or twice by bouts of frenzy. In "Widow's Weed," Espers' wilder side takes over. Like prime vintage Pink Floyd, the cut builds foreboding textures out of long, distorted guitar notes and ritual shuffling beats. Howls and bow scrapes and fractured noises of indeterminate origin add to the gloom; rising over it, Baird's voice finds an inconsolable sadness in a simple ascending series of notes. "Cruel Storm," though paced at the same slow tempo, has a warmer, jazzier feel, fusion-y Benson-esque guitar notes plopping like warm rain over a laid-back beat, while "Children of Stone" billows in sweet, tightly harmonized layers over a circling 12/8 rhythm. "Mansfield & Cyclops" is jazz-tinged and tranquil, its abstract, nonlinear rhythms smoothed over with intersecting guitars and zephyr-soft singing. Its whole midsection is a complex web of instrumental improvisation, long guitar notes hanging over the splatter-shot complexity of the drums. "Dead King," written as a companion piece to "Dead Queen," heads back into more recognizable folk territories, flourishes of recorder emerging from the crevices of its mournful melody.

The CD closes with "Moon Occults the Sun," the loveliest cut on an exceptionally beautiful album. To me, the track, like the album itself, is all about conjoined opposition — the moon against the sun, Weeks and Baird's very different voices joined in supernatural unity, minor-key British folk melodies bristling with the ping and drone of Eastern harmonies, the stillness of meditation containing wild improvisatory energy.

by Jennifer Kelly

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