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Starless & Bible Black

Starless & Bible Black

(Locust; US: 26 Oct 2006; UK: 23 Oct 2006)

Bridging British folk tradition, jazzy chord changes and electronic distortion, the debut album from this French/UK trio fluctuates between good and very good.  Singer Hélène Gautier has a lovely, soft-toned voice, blurring Stereolab-style over swinging beats and reaching tremulously for emotional purity in the folkier tunes.  One partner Peter Philipson grounds her squarely in misty chords and traditional melodies, coaxed from organic instruments like guitar and harmonica.  The other, Raz Ullah, complements (and to some extent, undoes) this work, putting the fine modern haze of distortion, loops and drone over pristine surfaces.  There is an ominous murmur under the lattice-fine guitars and flutish singing, even in the most feathery compositions, breathy “Time for Leaving” and wistful “Birley Tree”. “B.B.”, a cut augmented by Paul Blakesley on bass and Brian Edwards on drums, brings the band’s jazz chops to the foreground, blues-y guitar slides, string bass plucks and drum fills, cascading over one another headily, then coalescing in a breezy, narcotic beat.  There’s a certain impenetrable smoothness, though, that keeps you liking, not loving the album.  It slips just once, and not coincidentally, in the album’s best song.  This is “The Bitter Cup,” an ancient sounding lament that arises out of Eastern drone and weaves minor chord reels and sitar-ish flourishes into a melancholy without time or place.  Gautier’s voice is rougher here, more passionate, and even allowed one dramatic break, just the catch you need to hold on to the song and learn to love it.

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