Mi and L'au | Review | Matthew Murphy

their own enchanted form of stripped-down, hermetic cabaret-pop

April 11, 2006

The backstory behind the charming debut album from European duo Mi and L'au almost reads like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen folktale: two restless, kindred spirits meet and fall in love in Paris, then move to a cabin in the remote Finnish forest to write and record their deeply intimate music in utter seclusion. And while for some albums such a quaint and colorful narrative might seem an incidental talking point, in the case of Mi and L'au it becomes an essential descriptive, as it's nearly impossible to imagine this delicate, wintry music being made under any other circumstance.

Matching the couple's hushed vocals with acoustic guitars and minimal, deceptively sophisticated arrangements, Mi and L'au create music that bears only tangential relation to traditional folk, seeming instead to be their own enchanted form of stripped-down, hermetic cabaret-pop. Sung entirely in English, their songs do sound considerably less alien and otherworldly than Finnish psych-folk counterparts like Islaja, Lau Nau, or others from the extended Fonal label roster. The album's relative accessibility can perhaps be traced to guest contributions from members of Akron/Family and Antony compatriot Julia Kent which were overdubbed and mixed in Brooklyn. Yet despite these outward flourishes, Mi and L'au carries the distinct air of a work constructed almost entirely in private, seemingly intended for no further audience than the snow-topped fir trees eavesdropping through the windows.

Quietly plucked strings, woodwinds, and bells help give the opening processional "They Marry" a gently off-kilter carnival sway, with Mi's willowy vocals delivered in an ear-nibbling, Bardot-like whisper. "Fold your hands around me," she repeatedly coos and the music promptly obliges, enveloping her voice in cozy wisps of chimney-smoke. The chiming "Philosopher" sounds as though it were composed in accordance with a vintage grandfather clock. Here L'au joins Mi on effortless vocal harmonies before taking the lead himself on the austere "I've Been Watching You", a track whose lucid, plain-spoken lyricism fondly recalls Leonard Cohen's Songs From a Room.

Given the inherent, rustic simplicity of the duo's equipment and production (as well as Mi's rather limited vocal range) it is perhaps inevitable that over the course of these 14 songs a certain placid uniformity begins to afflict tracks like the uneventful "New Born Child" or the calliope-winding-down "Merry Go Round". Much richer and more effective are tracks like "Older" or "A Word in Your Belly", both of which feature exquisite, understated string arrangements similar to those producer Joe Boyd helped score for performers like Nick Drake or Vashti Bunyan. These orchestrations reach an apex on the set-closing "Study", which pairs a diffuse symphonic swell with what sounds like a mad scientist's bubbling test tubes, as Mi softly wonders "What's to come of tomorrow'" And as their captivating debut proves the great distances Mi and L'au are willing to go for their music, the possible answers to this album's final question appear to be virtually limitless.