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Huong Thanh & Nguyen Le

Fragile Beauty

(ACT; US: 12 Feb 2008; UK: 4 Feb 2008; Germany release date: 25 Jan 2008)

This, the fourth album from these two Paris-based musicians, is a combination of squashy-soft jazz guitar and needle-pointed Vietnamese voice, all angles and prisms. Huong Thanh sings, Nguyen Le’s guitar picks up the tune, reflects on it, elaborates, and so it goes. It’s a collaboration that has been received well in the past, but to me the two tones, soft and sharp, feel uncomfortable together, as if, despite the sympathy between them, they’re constantly pulling in different directions. When Thanh sings without the guitar in “The Pavillion of Crystallized Azu” it’s as if she’s been rescued from a sea of damp mousse. Her precision sits better with the classical strings on “Faithfulness” and the background pops and trills of “At Dusk, From the West Balcony.” This is one of those tricky albums—I can tell that it’s objectively good, that Thanh is a beautiful, skilful singer and that if squashy jazz guitars need to be noodled then Le is the man to noodle them, but the music, no matter how well-executed, makes me wish that we could ditch him and partner her forever with the other instruments instead.

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