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Thursday, March 23, 2006 10:30 pm

Contemporary antiquaries

Kiefer and Kraus are a pair of time-traveling minstrels

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Christian Kiefer and Sharron Kraus The Black Dove (Tompkins Square)

Christian Kiefer and Sharron Kraus
The Black Dove
(Tompkins Square)

On their first collaboration, songwriter/brainiacs Christian Kiefer (a Ph.D. candidate in American literature) and Sharron Kraus (a former Oxford tutor in philosophy) deliver 15 moody, mostly acoustic tracks that have one foot in the art house and the other in the moors. Kraus, who sings lead on most of The Black Dove, has a softly radiant voice that invokes such seminal Brit-folk divas as Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior; Kiefer, whose wavering tenor is pleasant if less remarkable, has a hushed, understated inflection that brings to mind Mark Kozelek (the Red House Painters) and Sam Beam (Iron & Wine). Together, against a twilit backdrop of banjos, pennywhistles, pianos, and violins, they sound both ancient and contemporary, like a pair of time-traveling minstrels who suddenly awaken in an underground club. The songs draw on elemental subjects —“The Blackest Crow,” “White Shroud,” “The Rocks,” “A Snake and a Lion” — which confers a curiously atavistic quality, but the execution is so assured and unselfconscious that the overall effect is never fusty. “On the Chase” might seem at first like an Appalachian ballad, except that the lyrics of old-timey mountain ditties seldom contain references to superglue, as this one does; “Letting Go, Holding On” pits rattletrap percussion and diaphanous drone against a minor-key vocal melody that sounds like the missing link between the Clancy Brothers and Henry Cow. The Kiefer-voiced “Dearest” has a more conventional college-rock vibe, its laid-back melody enlivened by frisky paradiddles, its banjos more Sufjan Stevens than Flatt & Scruggs, but the variation in tone is interesting, not jarring. Although the CD might strike some listeners as a trifle wispy in its gentle, meandering evocations of a past that none of us is old enough to remember, its lucid beauty is hard to dismiss.

Liz Durrett
The Mezzanine
(Warm)

When Liz Durrett was 16, her uncle gave her a guitar and told her to write mean songs about her parents. The story might have ended there, had her uncle/mentor not been maverick singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt and had Durrett not been a good deal more gifted than the average angst-addled adolescent. The Mezzanine, the Georgia native’s second album, is a more mature and ambitious representation of her talent than was her debut, 2005’s Husk, a collection of songs that Durrett recorded in her teens and sat on for the better part of a decade. Produced by Chesnutt, who also provides savvy musical support, The Mezzanine is a quiet but strangely emotive effort, suffused with a passion that smolders rather than flares. “No Apology,” a threadbare waltz punctured by feedback, xylophone, and assorted found sounds, starts out as a lullaby and morphs into a nightmare; “Creepyaskudzu,” with its omnichord and trombone touches, fulfills the promise of its Southern-gothic title. “Cup on the Counter” incorporates fragments of a taped conversation between a 4-year-old Durrett and her grandfather, whereas “Silent Partner,” a stately nocturne, relies on nothing but a slightly out-of-tune piano and its squeaky damper pedal for an effect that’s at once ravishing and eerie. With a style that’s somewhere between the psych-ward meditations of Cat Power and the reticent miniatures of early Suzanne Vega, Durrett is a confessional singer who keeps her secrets to herself. It’s no surprise, then, that the CD’s best song and emotional centerpiece is “Marlene,” which could be a nod to the iconic ice queen or could just as easily be about Durrett’s cat or favorite barista. Against a delicately plucked guitar pattern, Durrett’s throaty alto breaks and trembles, gradually ascending into a strangled, wordless descant that’s one part sob, one part bel canto, and 100 percent thrilling.
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