Kyle Dawkins' string work is precise and warm like a distant voice emanating from a light-soaked church. His musical partner and wife, Julie Phillips, adds clarity and depth with xylophone and bass to make the most recent project from Maps and Transit feel gently sculpted, more manually hewn than digitally. Its sound gives a cinematic impression, painterly and full of atmosphere; even the air in the room where you listen seems to change -- though almost imperceptibly -- from the very first notes. The handy term "folktronica" has been used to describe the overall impression, but such labels only limit the scope of the duo's latest work, Songs for Divining, released on Camomille Music.
More than pairing strings and percussion with laptop beats, the pair has created an amalgam of timbres to make an ethereal whole beyond categorization. Nevertheless, with a fisheye view, the organic sound at its heart envelops influences from chamber music to hushed rock to jangly mountain field recordings.
The album's electronic sounds, far from evoking cold circuitry, resonate as naturally as the analog instruments. Subtle beats, faint tones, and counter-rhythms trickle down from the Appalachian terminus, only an hour's drive from the heart of Athens, GA, where Maps and Transit makes its home. Sonic textures sizzle and fizz beneath bent banjo notes and mandolin tremolos, held together by a windy backdrop, realizing what Dawkins refers to as a "brambles-and-vines" landscape that gives the project a vast root system and a distinct sense of place.
Polyrhythmic galloping and Celtic guitar lines in 'Three Pendulums' help envisage a wide green plain unfolding before a group of haggard wanderers. As a glistening sea rises in the distance, the mood lightens, hopeful yet cautious. The sauntering cycle of the tune seems to skirt the cliffside along the way, pushing a tenuous fragility that's quietly thrilling.
During 'Ponds', Dawkins' nylon strings zing like a faint sitar, but once layered with counter-melodies, the guitars swirl, falling into banjo as snare and hi-hat add accents. Later, one hears rustling cicadas on a nightbreeze, somehow welcomed from thin air yet completely native. These are the often subtle qualities that make Songs for Divining transcendental, intoxicating, and resistant to genre pigeonholes.
Further on, crows create a chorus that binds 'Mr. Arrowood' to an hour of fading light, just as the table is set for a rollicking, quasi-funk patch which features Phillips' talent for adding timely percussive accents as well as driven bass guitar. Time shifts and shuffling, courtesy of a beat-up mandolin, keep things off-kilter contributing to a brief extraterrestrial notion. Here the pair lithely tramps a route seemingly bushwhacked by the likes of electronica heavies Aphex Twin or Amon Tobim. Without straying too widely, though, the song is resolved with a familiar, delicate banjo as birds again take wing.
These nine compositions by Maps and Transit flow down and through a riparian zone, like a creek bound to join its kin, less a riled river and more a hundred life-supporting rivulets finding their entropic course. The listener, too, can find a route through time and terrain, first in the blind, then sensing the way under the quiet guidance of this duo's thoughtful musical vision.
Maps and Transit released Songs for Divining Sept. 17, 2010 on Montreal's Camomille Music.