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Born Heller - Born Heller

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Artist: Born Heller

Album: Born Heller

Label: Locust

Review date: Aug. 24, 2004

Born Heller’s insular music doesn’t reach out, but it offers plenty to reward listeners willing to step close and listen hard. In concert, the Chicago-based duo rarely employs amplification; Josephine Foster and Jason Ajemian prefer to establish a sonic balance by simply listening to each other and adjusting their playing accordingly. They perform facing each other rather than the audience; it feels like you’re sitting in on a rehearsal, or perhaps some more intimate encounter. Their brief debut record manifests these dynamics by eschewing the standard voice in the foreground, instruments in the background mix in favor of something more egalitarian. Of course, with only two or three acoustic sound sources in play at any given time, there’s plenty of room for Ajemian’s resonant bass and Foster’s high, vibrato-laden voice and minimally strummed mandolin and harp to find a natural balance.

Foster’s singing bears a strong resemblance to that of English folk icon Shirley Collins; both singers manage to sound fragile despite a robust delivery and impressive control. But where Collins worked mainly with folkloric material, the themes in Born Heller’s highly reduced, poetic lyrics are contemporary; “Call the paramedics,” she suggests on “Mountain Song,” “they won’t mind.” And while they’re handy with a lilting melody that’d make your clog-dancing aunt feel at home, the bracing dissonances that arise from the duo’s sparse arrangements betray a working knowledge of avant-garde jazz and classical music. Ajemian easily straddles those camps in groups like Triage, Dragons 1976, and his wonderful duo with reedist Matt Bauder. And while Foster may be familiar to record buyers her work with the folk-rock ensemble Children’s Hour, she developed her impressive technique training for the opera. Fortunately her work is free of the grandstanding and excess one associates with that genre; for Born Heller, less is more.

By Bill Meyer

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