Mi and LÂ’au | ReviewFolkies in the Mist Jan 27/06
Enchanting new records by hermetic adepts Vashti Bunyan and Mi and L’au
convey muted wonder
Feelings of wonder can be occasioned by all sorts of things; typically, however, people experience them in one of two ways. There’s the wonder that comes from being stunned or blown away by something, the way that Moses was when he confronted the burning bush. But wonder can also take the form of a more contemplative awe. This is wonder inspired not by some rupture or disjuncture, but by an encounter with something or someone that calls us out of ourselves into a more intimate, and ultimately more familiar, relationship—wonder as born of a mutual indwelling that unlocks some mystery about the ties that bind.
Making music that expresses how it feels to be bowled over by something is easy, readily lending itself to overstatement—to shouts, crashes of cymbals and other dramatics. Evoking wonder of the more subdued variety, wonder that arises from the ebb and flow of everyday life, calls for greater subtlety. Not necessarily quiet, but certainly quietude. It calls for receptivity to the smallest, most quotidian of moments such as that manifest on a pair of exquisite new records, one by the evanescent British folksinger Vashti Bunyan and the other by Mi and L’au, two newlyweds who share a cabin deep in the forests of Finland. Bunyan is one of those apocryphal figures, like the soul singer Howard Tate or the sunshine-pop doyenne Margo Guryan, who exert considerable influence yet who, after receding from view for decades, seem more fabled than real. Initially touted as the next Marianne Faithfull, Bunyan released a pair of failed U.K. singles during the mid-’60s, one of them written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Hooking up with producer Joe Boyd and members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band later in the decade, she made her debut album, Just Another Diamond Day. By the time that numinous set of rustic plainsong came out overseas, though, Bunyan had retreated to a life of farming on England’s Outer Hebrides. It wasn’t until she was coaxed out of retirement to sing with freak-folk revivalists Devendra Banhart and the Animal Collective that her record finally was reissued, or that she gave any real thought to recording again.
The coinage that supplies her first album in 35 years with its title, Lookaftering, might strike some as quaint, or even infantile. But Bunyan’s neologism is a far cry from the faux-naïf expressionism of the psychedelic sprites who revere her. In her knowing yet guileless hands, “lookaftering” is another word or mindfulness, a term for caring for the loved ones and land she’s tended since she vanished into the Hebridean mists in 1969. “Lookaftering” is what Bunyan describes in “Glow Worm,” a gently flickering number from her first album, as “holding moments in the depth of care.” Lookaftering feels like an extension and deepening of this posture of attunement. One track finds Bunyan letting the memory of her late brother—his presence as much as his absence—wash over her, much as the waves of producer Max Richter’s piano suffuse her loamy, waiflike soprano. Elsewhere, amidtinkling glockenspiel and gossamer filigrees of acoustic guitar, she marvels at her own children’s preternatural immersion in the world. Contemplating the opposite in “Turning Backs,” she opines, “Indifference is the coldest hand / It is the wave that clears the sand / Of castles built by baby hands,” her mournful voice wrapped in a dappled blanket of piano, dulcimer, Mellotron, trumpet and guitar.The trumpet on “Turning Backs” is played by Robert Kirby, the man who wrote penumbral string and horn arrangements for Nick Drake’s first two records—and for three tracks on Bunyan’s first album. Issuing from the enchanting likes of oboe, harp, and French and English horn, the playing that envelops Bunyan’s pastoral musings seems not so much to produce sounds as to channel and give shape to those that already dwell within the flora and fauna that surround her. “We are the same / The same / But different,” she observes on one shimmering track, and nowhere does she give this notion more poignant voice than in “Wayward Hum,” the album’s twilit closer. During a solitary rehearsal session that Bunyan didn’t know Richter was taping, she murmurs wordlessly, her unselfconscious eloquence bearing witness to how mere words can never adequately convey the sublime.
Epiphanies like this lie at the unvarnished heart of the self-titled debut album by Mi and L’au. The couple met in Paris, where Mi, who is Finnish, was doing modeling work, and where L’au, a Frenchman, was working in the music business. Urban scenes depicting winos and boxers crop up from time to time on their record, as well as sonic evocations of carnival midways and sidewalk cafes. The primary impetus for the duo’s sparse, earthy music, though, was their move to a remote part of Finland, austere environs that lend their recording its placid cast. Yet whereas the songs of Vashti Bunyan persistently open out toward the earth, sky, grubs and swallows, those of Mi and L’au have a distinct interiority, a turning inward of the sort typically associated with more cloistered contemplation.“Stay / Calm / For awhile,” L’au urges in one hushed track, enunciating each word carefully before repeating them and adding, “There’s a word in your belly / There’s a world in your belly.” A heaving string interlude follows, suggesting the deep breathing of meditation, before the whole passage, both words and music, is reiterated with even greater deliberation. The mood here is one of pregnant yet unhurried anticipation, and much the same attentiveness is palpable in “Nude.” Here, to hypnotic strains of acoustic guitar, Mi gently exhorts, “Let it out, let it in / Let it out, let it in / And bring something into this world.” In “Merry Go Round,” over creaky notes plucked from banjo and guitar, Mi and L’au intone the song’s title over and over again, gradually slowing the words down as if tracing an inward spiral to a place, akin to the eye of a hurricane, where motion and stillness become one. Though marked by profound stillness, the performances on Mi and L’au are anything but static. Witness how the sounds of gurgling water and strings straining for pitch quicken “Study,” where, impelled by an insistent chord repeated on accordion, Mi bids, “Come out from hiding / Go back inside / To ride the wave.” Many of Mi and L’au’s performances are built around a single precept or observation, often stated nakedly and with aphoristic concision. An equally singular musical figure bowed on a dulcimer or cello, or plinked out on a toy piano or Mellotron, generally accompanies it.
Mi’s breath-like intonation, which often verges on sprechgesang, is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the duo’s album, and she is equally adept at evoking wistfulness (“I’ve Been Watching You”), intimacy (“Nude”) and the surreal(“Christmas Soul”). The last of these, with its woozy chorus, “Death will come to our funeral / To take back our bones / To give back our souls,” would make a wonderful soundtrack to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Much of Mi and L’au’s imperturbable music might in fact serve the great Swedish director’s muse. Yet whereas Bergman’s films tend to plumb disjunction and its discontents, the exceedingly gentle music of Mi and L’au is mainly about connection, whether achieved through a heightened state of consciousness or, as in the song “They Marry,” through an enfolding union of souls.