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Meg Baird/Mary Lattimore - Ghost Forests Music Album Reviews

On their debut collaboration, the acclaimed harpist and the Espers singer pull long songs and meditative moods taut by creating unexpected tangles.

Listen for the twangs. The little disruptions on Ghost Forests, the collaborative debut from Meg Baird of Espers and Heron Oblivion and the harpist Mary Lattimore, offer a key into its soul. On the surface, the album is gorgeous, soothing, delicate; you could soak in a bathtub while it plays. But beneath that placid surface, little explosions and rustlings abound. Electric guitar mutters cloud the arrangements, while Lattimore treats her harp strings like nerve endings, sometimes making you wince at their bright snap. The more time you spend with Ghost Forests, the more these unsettling touches come into focus. They give the album weight, so it doesn’t drift into the ether. This is ambient folk, shot through with ambient anxiety.

Lattimore has never let the harp’s reputation as a “celestial” instrument, the one played by the angels on your dentist’s wallpaper, get in her way. In her hands, the harp doesn’t float down from some numinous hereafter free from death, suffering, or finger calluses. Her percussive playing offers constant reminders that a harp player is wrestling with a collection of wood and strings the size of a compact car. Baird, meanwhile, strums her guitar hard. On “Damaged Sunset,” she hits the strings like someone driving nails into a porch deck. On “Between Two Worlds,” she adds bullfrog blurts of keyboard around a ringing drone. Such textures keep Ghost Forests mesmerizing, even taut, as these songs unfurl into eight minutes of single-chord pieces. Mind-wandering is inevitable, and often part of the point, in music this loose and expansive, but, during Ghost Forests, you somehow remain magnetized.

Ghost Forests is split between longer, mostly wordless explorations like “Between Two Worlds” and more songlike pieces like “In Cedars,” where Baird’s sighing vocals point the music toward dream-pop. On “Painter of Tygers,” little icicles of synth streak quietly in the background before the arrangement darkens into a cloud of distortion. It passes as quickly as it arrives, like watching a patch of rough weather move across the sky.

Years ago, Baird and Lattimore belonged to a loose and highly collaborative group of experimental and folk musicians around Philadelphia. But only after moving to California separately did they work together in a formal, dedicated sense. On Ghost Forests, you can feel their sensibilities probing each other’s, seeking counterintuitive ways to fit together. They are especially attuned to one other in the moments when the music verges on free improvisation, when the song structures dissolve so that the pair can range more widely and freely. The wordless stretches are so steely, so beguiling, that they almost overshadow the pieces with vocals. The sung moments are beautiful, particularly “In Cedars,” but it is a more conventional beauty, the beauty of Japanese water fountains sitting in corner spas.

The most obvious choices Lattimore and Baird make tend to fall the flattest: The six-track album ends with a long-flowing reworking of the traditional child ballad, “Fair Annie.” Like many such songs, the song has plenty of dark notes—a lord orders a woman who has borne him seven children to clean herself up and appear more like a “maiden” for his newly arriving wife. But Baird and Lattimore play it pretty straight. Their version is only nice, and all the little tensions the pair have been developing drain away during these eight minutes. The two are friends, and given the steady clip of their respective release schedules, it seems likely they will work together again. Maybe next time, they push past these edges, into the wilderness of twangs and blurts beckoning just beyond Ghost Forests.

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