Retsin’s Tara Jane O’Neal and Cynthia Nelson have spent the majority of their careers creating, relatively speaking, rather difficult music. O’Neal made her debut in the mathy Rodan, and has also spent time in “chamber-folk” outfit The Sonora Pine, as well as releasing two solo CDs; Nelson started out in the screamy, mathy rock band Ruby Falls. In Retsin, the two (who, incidentally, are also a couple) collaborate to make arty, slightly dissonant music with acoustic instruments.
Their previous records have verged from pretentious and virtually tuneless exercises in difficulty (see their debut, Salt Lick) to much more accessible, very pleasant records that still seem to float by without managing to lodge any of their songs in your head (see 1998’s Sweet Luck of Amaryllis). On their last few records, Retsin’s sound has evolved to a place where it could be compared to artists mining similar territory, such as Azure Ray and Ida (who Retsin have collaborated with, most significantly on the brilliant Ida Retsin Family LP). However, Retsin always seems to maintain a chilly distance that separates their songs from those of their warmer, more inviting peers.
Moon Money Moon, a brief five-song EP, is their latest effort, and despite its brevity, is perhaps the most cohesive thing they’ve done yet. The songs “Pauline and Susie” and “Money Song” feature Nelson’s breathy, lilting soprano, backed by simple acoustic instrumentation, usually guitar and banjo. “Pauline and Susie”, unlike most previous Retsin tunes, actually sports a vocal melody that stands a chance of getting stuck in your head, with a jaunty guitar figure to go along with it.
O’Neal’s contributions, the lovely accordion-laced opener, “Duck Out” and the moody, ephemeral closer “Moonshine”, while not as immediately catchy as Nelson’s songs, are nonetheless quite beautiful and crystalline. They also might be the most song-oriented things O’Neal’s ever done, and stand in direct contrast to much of her last solo LP, In the Sun Lines, which was more concerned with weightless instrumentals than song structure.
While it’s doubtful that Moon Money Moon will win the duo a legion of new fans, released as it is on the tiny Spanish Acuarela label (and also due to its brevity—five songs, one of which is an instrumental, all of which combine to clock in at barely 12 minutes), it represents a clear progression for O’Neal and Nelson away from the arty, borderline pretentious material of their past and towards a more accessible, slightly more populist take on their quiet, breathy, intimate music.