Decidedly odd, but in an amazingly good way. Bâton Bleu are a duo of Maria Laurent – who we’ve previously enthused about in the wonderful French multi-cultural band Meïkhâneh (fR414 and fRoots 66) – providing the lioness’s share of accompaniments on Mongolian tovshuur, banjo, glockenspiel, thumb pianos, aulos, flute and more, and Gautier Degandt on bass harmonica, thumb pianos, guitar and percussion. Both sing: the combination is a real vocal beauty-and-the-beast. She’s sweetly melodic bluesy, occasionally Arabic-sounding in her harmonies; he’s gruff in a French-accented Blind-Willie-Johnson-meets-Waits sort of way. Mesmerising.
Their vocal and instrumental textures are really imaginatively used. Check out Sarakiniko on this issue’s fRoots 71 for a good example: it kicks off with the twank of the tovshuur lute and gentle percussion, brings in thumb pianos and the chant of mia omorphi paralia (a beautiful beach – the song’s about “the mystical island of Ithaca”), gently multiplies harmonies and just when you think it’s sorted in comes the aulos, a twin-reeded instrument sounding like a Greek bagpipe. The next track, Buffalo 7, is simply propelled by 5-string banjo rather than lute most of the way, with his Beefheartian-distorted vocals set against her sweetness, and the bizarre chorus He’s got the stick of the bluesman/ and seven heart attacks/ He was howling in cushion/ He is a cherry rose riff raff. No, me neither, but I guarantee that you’re going to find it stuck in your head for days.
Just occasionally they hint that they may be from the same part of the musical universe that produced Lo’Jo, but in a minimalist and much less studiedly pretentious way. You sort of think you’ve worked that out and then Trouble All The Time, Pt.2 and Mark Twain in their very different ways provide Holy Modal Rounders and Fugs straws to clutch at. By the time you get to Robert (“in which we console Robert Johnson and his broken heart”) you stop over-thinking them and decide that they’re just your favourite new discovery and as original as fuck. And then they finish up returning to earth with a quirky Ring Of Fire.
Probably not for the sort of people who go to Costa Del Folk, mind…