Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone – Thin Air (2009)

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by Mark Saleski

Tom Waits is a mysterious fellow. I mean, how much do we really know about him? Given the erudite nature of his music, I suppose we know enough.

Oh sure, we’ve all heard the stories. Drivin’ the kids on the field trip to the music store in that tank of an Oldsmobile… and not getting any recognition from the staff. Drivin’ to the dump in that tank of an Oldmobile and getting recognized by the employees. Even if we take these yarns as fact, it’s still difficult to not be curious about what goes on at Chez Waits. Does Tom jump out of bed in the morning in his Louis Armstrong boxers, click on his Fanon MV-16S 20 watt bullhorn, and wake Kathleen with a rousing “Ladies & Gentlemen! It’s coffee time!!!!?” We’ll probably never know.

What does this have to do with Mary Halvorson and Jessican Pavone? Well, I was listening to Thin Air and its sonic wonderments have me suspicious that these two musicians have a secret: their real last name is Waits. Yes, they were right down that hall hearing dad’s enhanced bellow each morning. More important, they heard that music being made.

It’s not the particulars of Waits’ music that got me thinking this way. You will hear no rusty bicycle parts being rubbed together, nor will you hear an old antique dresser being whacked with a 2×4. There aren’t even any loping & romantic carnival love ballads. No, the point of musical intersection is Halvorson & Pavone’s propensity for taking known forms and pushing them out of shape via their own set of funhouse mirrors. So this is a jazz album, a folk album, an indie rock album, and a field recording … depending on what angle you look at the songs from.

The instrumentation adds to the story (Halvorson on guitar & vocals, Pavone on viola & vocals) but comes nowhere near to completing it. I could even drop heavy-duty collaborator names such as Anthony Braxton, but this would be misleading.

Check out the title track for hints of the musical kaleidoscope to follow. Halvorson begins with a simple repeated figure that is indeed very folk-like. Pavone plays a single-note accompaniment as the pair sings with close harmonies their song of, well, I don’t know what: “What is remaining/Decided to float in the air/Hanging there.” Is it a decision yet to be made? The ‘folkie’ cliche would point in that direction, but then the music takes a sharp turn to the left as the guitar and viola diverge, bringing in busted distortion, violent chords and other stringed abuse. It’s fun, aggressive and … not folk.

What’s great about Thin Air is that you can never be certain of direction. “Juice” starts out with a loping waltz feel that heads toward skronkville but never quite gets there. Contrast that with the call & response of “Juice.” Dissonance never tasted so good. My favor tune here is “Lullaby,” which showcases this pair’s ear for genre-mixing. What starts off as a stately lament soon morphs into passages that sport guitar lines that wouldn’t be out of place on a Django Reinhardt record.

So far, none of the data mining that I’ve done concerning Ms. Halvorson and Ms. Pavone has turned up any hard evidence of this theoretical Tom Waits connection. My ears want the story to be true. They want to discover a photo of the girls schlepping calliope parts (Father’s Day presents) off to the FedEx office. They want to find the sheaf of notes from the Glitter & Doom press conference plans.

Barring further developments, I guess they have to be happy with this quirky chunk of music.

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