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Thursday, July 6, 2006 09:31 am

Testing an illusory world

Lady & Bird’s children’s story for adults

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Lady & Bird Lady & Bird (Yellow Tangerine)
Lady & Bird is the intriguing, if slight, side project of Keren Ann Zeidel and Bardi Johannsson. Zeidel, an Israel-born Frenchwoman who now shuttles between Paris and New York, has two domestic solo releases under her belt: her English-language debut, Not Going Anywhere (2004), and Nolita, its half-French, half-English follow-up (2005). American critics slobbered mightily over both albums, anointing Zeidel the reigning anti-diva of the expat underground. Johannsson, who sings in the Icelandic group Bang Gang, is less famous but never overshadowed. His papery rasp blends perfectly with Zeidel’s whispery alto; at times, the two sound so uncannily alike that you’d swear they were siblings. Zeidel and Johannsson describe Lady & Bird as a “children’s story for adults,” and its titular protagonists are a couple of helium-voiced innocents trapped in adult bodies who suspect that the external world is an illusion; eventually they decide to jump off a bridge together to test their hypothesis. Epistemologically speaking, the CD’s nine-minute capper, “La Ballade of Lady & Bird,” is just plain silly; imagine a bong-fueled redaction of The Little Prince. As a pop song, it’s not so bad, although the speeded-up vocals devolve from cute to cloying well before the track reaches the halfway mark. Fortunately, the overly precious concept mostly takes a back seat to the music, which is consistently lovely, whether it’s woozy soft-pop, winsome chamber-folk, ambient découpage, or some variant thereof. “Do What I Do,” a spectral psych-pop canon awash in acoustic guitar arpeggios, bright glockenspiels, and seraphic harmonies, perfectly reconciles the Association and the Velvet Underground, whereas the woodwind-embellished “Walk Real Slow” channels the wistful elegance of Françoise Hardy. There’s a distinctly retro quality to much of the CD, as its two covers — a sweetly deadpan reading of “Suicide Is Painless” and an exquisite take on the Velvets’ “Stephanie Says” — make abundantly clear, but more experimental, electronics-based tracks, such as “Shepard’s Song” and “The Morning After,” anchor the album in the here and now. Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw is probably the most famous Ethiopian vocalist around, but really, now, how many Ethiopian vocalists can you name off the top of your head? It’s a pity we Americans are so provincial, because if Gigi is at all representative of her homeland’s talent pool, we’re missing out on a lot. Gold & Wax, her sixth album, blends traditional Ethiopian church music into a slurry of Afro-pop, dub, funk, and house. Abetted by a crack band that features P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, iconoclastic guitarist Buckethead, and jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, Gigi makes music that’s propulsive, sexy, and utterly beguiling — and way too good to be exiled to the worldbeat ghetto. Like Gigi’s other Palm releases, Gold & Wax was produced by Bill Laswell, who’s worked with everyone from Fela Kuti to Iggy Pop, from Herbie Hancock to the Talking Heads, from John Zorn to Dub Syndicate. Laswell, who has a distinctive (some might say heavy-handed) production style, is no doubt responsible for a good part of the album’s cosmopolitan sound, but it bears noting that contemporary Ethiopian music is itself a hodgepodge of influences, incorporating Middle Eastern modalities and American jazz and R&B. But let more informed (and more uptight) listeners quarrel over questions of authenticity and provenance. The rest of us can groove to the simultaneously haunting, delirious, and seductive “Anten,” with its twitchy beats, plaintive vocals, and swelling strings; the ululating, Indian-influenced “Hulu-Dane,” which radiates more heat than a good curry; and the hypnotic closer “Enoralehu,” in which Gigi’s vocal acrobatics put the current R&B melisma queens to shame.
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