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Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer
Album: Off-Grid Lo-Fi
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 12

I've already reviewed the Pacific Northwest duo's two previous releases (Seed Of A Pine and Maritime) for this site, but even so I wasn't entirely prepared for their latest offering. Not because it's significantly different in purely musical terms, or style or even attitude, but because it's even more mesmerising and close-up-captivating, raising the bar even higher while digging ever deeper into the psyche of the elemental music-making experience. At the same time, the barest-bones approach they adopt for this record can be regarded as a logical paring-down from their comparatively stripped-down second album Maritime; it suits their music deep down to the ground and digs its roots even further into your soul. For right from the opening Mantra, with Dave's whispersome confidences boosted oh so gently by Mandy's harmonies, you can taste and feel the special atmosphere they've created on this session, just by being there.

The album was recorded last winter, "entirely with solar and wind power, on a nearly uninhabited, off-grid island" that's part of the San Juan group in northwest Washington State. Its unique, intimate ambience may (technically) be styled "lo-fi", but actually it faithfully reproduces the feel of two musicians fully in tune with their music, their instruments and the potential of their sonorities, the qualities and interrelationship of their singing voices, and of course the unique performing environment itself.

As for the songs themselves, this time the writing credits are less evenly distributed, with Mandy being responsible for nine out of the twelve. She is over and again proving herself a brilliant songwriter; there tends to be a brittle, febrile energy to her compositions, even on the most superficially sanguine of them (Stuck), and their often groundbreaking structure and content embraces a driven momentum, one which contrasts almost wilfully with Dave's initially more settled demeanour yet can be heard to miraculously complement it. His wistful, almost romantic opus Creatures We Are is an idyllic seemingly-autobiographical reflection, for instance, and Dave and Mandy's creative togetherness is tangible. It must be said, tho, that Dave's songs usually rise organically out of that kind of beginning into animated progress through development and a greater attack. In particular, Change My Ways builds inexorably to a rhythmic climax that's almost reminiscent of Richie Havens in its percussive glory and the tradeoff between Mandy's coruscating electric and Dave's persistent acoustic guitar is magnificently managed.

It's worth remarking that while Dave and Mandy remain equal partners musically during the performance, you can't help but marvel especially at Mandy's ever-developing multi-instrumental dexterity - here she adds cello and banjo to her already impressive skill-set (the story goes that she discovered the cello in the closet of the house where they recorded the album), and songs like Eggs For Honey, Way Out Here and Need A Mountain make great use of her primitive, choppy inter-modal cross-rhythm banjo technique. Mandy's electric guitar work is consistently outstanding, with a blinding fuzz-drenched power that complements her lyrical flights of fancy, while her magnificently ferocious acoustic fretwork on the frantic instrumental Trainwreck recalls the best and most experimental of legendary guitar virtuosi like Bert Jansch and Davy Graham (and that's saying something!). Dave's no slouch either, of course, and his playing, though often wonderfully deft and delicate, invariably (and potently) transcends any conventional concept of the accompanying role (and he comes into his own with his astounding percussion backing on Trainwreck).

Off-grid lo-fi is a truly standout new collection from Dave and Mandy, who must surely by now be considered one of Americana's most vital and essential - and original - duo acts.

David Kidman