Graded on a Curve:
Mary Lattimore +
Mac McCaughan,
New Rain Duets

Mary Lattimore is known for collaboration; if the scene were jazz, she’d be rated as a first-call harpist. Mac McCaughan is noted as the singer-guitarist in Superchunk, a band that has thrived in four decades; it sorta goes without saying that collaboration is in his skill set. Still, the prospect of a duo record from these artists came with a tinge of uncertainty, as the team-up didn’t seem a natural fit. New Rain Duets, out on clear or black vinyl and digital March 22 through Three Lobed Recordings, exceeds expectations. One reason why: McCaughan isn’t slinging guitar but helming an array of synths. Meanwhile, Lattimore is plucking like a champ. The results are appealingly celestial, but also more.

I haven’t listened to everything Mary Lattimore’s recorded, but to varying degrees, I’ve liked everything I’ve heard. Her own stuff, either solo or in collaboration (she’s released records with Jeff Zeigler and Meg Baird and played with many others) displays an admirable range and comfort with experimentation while avoiding falling back onto the baseline cascades of lushness that are associated with her chosen instrument. If I see the name Mary Lattimore in the credits of someone else’s album (as I did with Sharron van Etten’s Are We There or Marissa Nadler’s For My Crimes) I note it as a sign of promise.

Of course, no artist is infallible, and I was unsure over what exactly New Rain Duets held in store. This is not to suggest that I don’t hold Mac McCaughan’s work in high regard. To the contrary, Superchunk was amongst my most-played bands of the ’90s, in part because they consistently delivered hooky songs with punk energy and edge while never coming off like a bunch of hackneyed doofuses.

I really dig his other bands Portastatic and Bricks, as well. Same goes for his 2015 solo LP Non-Believers. But a common thread in McCaughan’s work is pop, though it’s far from one-note. Over the years, he’s expanded from early Superchunk’s post-hardcore Buzzcocks-zone into lo-fi melodicism and power-pop-shaded singer-songwriter territory, and later augmented his sturdy strum with vivid baroque flourishes. On Non-Believers, he even productively integrated New Wavy synths into the scheme.

Well, my folly was in thinking that McCaughan was going to bring his songwriting expertise to New Rain Duets. Had he done so, he and Lattimore might’ve come up with something interesting or even great, but instead, he arrived with those synths. Alright. Together they came up with something that resides much closer to her body of work while also standing out as distinct.

The album unwinds in four movements, titled simply I-IV. Along the way there are numerous passages that fit the description of cosmic, which is close to inevitable when the harp enters the realms of the abstract. However, the engaging toughness of Lattimore’s playing throughout helps to vault the record into the category of duo exchange, a term I normally reserve for avant-jazz. But the descriptor fits New Rain Duets pretty well, particularly as the opening moments exude the aura of Lattimore and McCaughan getting comfortable as they work up to something substantial.

In his essay accompanying the promotion of this release, guitarist William Tyler relates how his grandfather once described the harp as like an “open piano.”  He mentions it in regard to the unique nature of the instrument in general, though it’s interesting that at numerous points in the first selection here Lattimore’s string plucks come off like key plinks. And at around the five-minute mark, those plinks get especially intense.

If New Rain Duets isn’t all swirling and floating, it’s also not wholly abstract either, as the second piece showcases an extended melodic highlight from Lattimore. As it progresses, McCaughan’s synths enhance the beauty of her playing and occasionally contrast with it, as during the middle portion when his input turns briefly distorted and increasingly ominous.

That he doesn’t linger too long in one place is crucial to New Rain Duets’ success, with the record’s textures and atmospheres deriving from seven devices, including a three Moogs, a Casio SK-1, a Critter, a Guitari Kaleidoloop, and a Roland. McCaughan is no stranger to synths, and I’m not just talking about Non-Believers, as back in ’95 on Portastatic’s “Scrapbook EP” he effectively utilized electronics for a cover of Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.” The same year, the same outfit’s Slow Note from a Sinking Ship featured a concluding synth-heavy untitled track. That was cool, but his work here is considerably more robust.

In the third track McCaughan really shines. While Lattimore glistens away on her axe, the synth tones initially envelop her motions and then become gradually woozier. As sharper, more aggressive timbres emerge, there’s an unexpected interjection that suggests a barking dog, and a little later a longer sequence that sounds like a wooden object is being struck or rattled or is possibly striking something.

Again, the air of the cosmic is present, but whole stretches of the album unfurl like a late-’70s DIY experimental response to the decade’s kosmische action. That means the spiritual dimension is never really submerged but rather intertwined with a palpable (and nicely counterbalancing) inclination toward the avant-garde.

If divided into fourths, each side of New Rain Duets unwinds as an unbroken piece; by the time “IV” hits the speakers, Mary Lattimore and Mac McCaughan are pretty much out of surprises, but the interaction remains stimulating to the very end. Their collaboration far exceeds my expectations and the norm for this sorta thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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