New Rain Duets
Three Lobed Recordings; Mar. 22
In 1975, Brian Eno was confined to bed, recovering from a near-fatal car accident. A visiting friend had left a record of eighteenth-century harp music on the turntable, but at a very quiet volume. Too weak to change the level of the amplifier, Eno had to make do with hearing only bits and pieces of instrumentation over the sound of rain falling outside.
“I suddenly thought of making music that didn’t impose itself on your space, but created a sort of landscape that you could belong to,” he said. It was a profound experience that led to his album Discreet Music, a founding document of the modern ambient genre, which inspired soundscapes by generations of artists to follow.
The title of New Rain Duets, the supremely skilled experimental harpist Mary Lattimore’s collaborative album with Mac McCaughan, might well be a nod to this juicy bit of ambient lore. If not, it’s a sweet bit of serendipity, as is the pairing of these two artists. For years, Lattimore has honed her craft on a prolific series of recordings. The harp has an elegant reputation, but her technique has teeth. She often plays through effects pedals, exploring both harshness and beauty.
McCaughan, meanwhile, is best known as the high-energy front man of Superchunk and the cofounder of Merge Records. But whether performing solo or with his side project, Portastatic, he has gravitated toward using guitar feedback and keyboards as textural sounds. This interest in texture comes to the fore on his dreamy analog synthesizer score for the 2016 film Paint It Black, and dreamy analog synths, not guitars or vocals, are also what he contributes to Lattimore’s effects-laden harp arrangements here.
While the pairing might initially seem puzzling, both artists have a depth that allows them to create something that feels holistic. On New Rain Duets, recorded at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, the two play off one other lithely. The sonics gel while still maintaining distinctions. The harp is often thought of as a celestial instrument, associated with cherubs and the heavens and the spiritual jazz albums of Alice Coltrane.
But on New Rain Duets, the instrument sounds wonderfully earthy, plucked and manipulated and petted with curious fingers, like a piece of sewing. It’s grounded, while McCaughan’s synth sounds freely warp and expand, bleep and whirl, infiltrate and hover. Through the four soaring pieces that compose the record, Lattimore and McCaughan play with their contrasting roles to express tension and release. They showcase the potency of partnership to create emotional music, even when the music, as Eno said, doesn’t impose itself.