Mi and L'au | Review | Jonathan Dean

a seething undercurrent of swirling, ominous atmospherics...

There is an atmosphere of particularly chilly austerity on the debut album of Mi and L'au. It's not entirely unexpected from an album produced by Michael Gira, but it is somewhat unexpected after learning that Mi and L'au are friends of fellow Young God folkie Devendra Banhart, and that their album contains contributions from Akron/Family and Julia Kent. Where Devendra's latest album Cripple Crow reveled in its own expensive, high-tech studio sheen, and contained some of Banhart's most celebratory and rollicking group compositions, Mi and L'au sounds a lot closer to something that belongs on Young God records: quietly dramatic, somber chamber folk. Mi and L'au is a male/female duo existing on the imaginary border of two musical phenomena. Mi is from Finland, and consequently the music picks up a bit of that Fonal Records Finnish underground psychedelia vibe, where compositions remain loose and kaleidescopic, organic but scattershot, with a frosty nip to remind you of the hostile tundra of Mi's homeland. L'au is from Paris, and an old friend of Devendra Banhart, who wrote his song "Gentle Soul" (from Oh Me Oh My...) for L'au, as a thanks for letting him crash at his place. Perhaps because of this connection, Mi and L'au also tune in to the current wave of American "freak folk," singing in English about things like false teeth and worms, and incorporating an ever-so-subtle atmosphere of Appalachian Americana. I'm making this album sound as if it is some sort of confused postmodern hybrid, but it's not really, and the music and songs flow quite naturally, if always somewhat restrained. It's this restraint that characterizes the music on this pair's debut album, always an emotion repressed, a sadness not quite articulated. The press notes mention Nico, which is a good comparison. Not that Mi's soft, caressing voice really resembles Nico's chilly monotone, but both singers share an emotional nakedness that betrays a weighty, unspoken emotional history. Lyrics are simple throughout, often just simple observations of everyday life that take on a special significance with repetition against the backdrop of Mi and L'au's skeletal melodies and haunting compositional touches-a gorgeous swell of romantic strings here, a sprinkling of winter bells there, a lightly plucked banjo, the rhythm of a foot stomping a wood floor. The production is crystalline and spectral, and is perhaps the most impressive thing about the album, with Gira highlighting every creak, quaver and scrape, opening out the mix to reveal hidden undercurrents of haunted psychedelia and shimmering drones. A track such as "Bums" feels like one sort of thing-a melodic vocal duet, gently picked guitar and flute-until halfway through, when a rip in the gossamer fabric unleashes a seething undercurrent of swirling, ominous atmospherics that bounce off the dark forest canopy, creating fearful shadows. At these moments, the duo is most reminiscent of early 90s British esoteric psych-folk, shades of Current 93 or Sol Invictus. Then there is a track such as "A Word In Your Belly," which achieves all of the melancholic, symphonic grandeur of Agaetis Bryjun-era Sigur Ros. (No, really! Listen to the samples below.) Mi and L'au is a lovely and haunting debut album, and another impressive addition to Young God's mostly unblemished track record of uncovering great new talent.