By Hearts+Horses by Park Avenue Music (Review)

The perfect soundtrack for a nice cup of tea and your favorite Murakami novel.
By Hearts+Horses, Park Avenue Music

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Park Avenue Music’s For Your Home or Office, and I found myself instantly enamored by the duo’s blend of atmospheric, slightly glitch-ified electronica and female vocals. True, it’s a formula that’s been used many times over on countless albums, but For Your Home Or Office did it incredibly well. Indeed, that little release still holds up remarkably well, four years after the fact, when it could be argued that the glut of similar acts has, in no way, diminished.

Well, it’s now 2008, and the Sacramento-based duo of Wes Steed and Jeannette Faith have released By Hearts+Horses, which finds them exploring moods and tones similar to those on For Your Home or Office, only they’re exploring them in a slightly different fashion.

This time around, both the “electronic” and “pop” aspects of For Your Home or Office have been minimized. Oh, there are still electronic gurgles and glitchy beats here and there, but they’re relegated almost entirely to the songs’ peripheries. Instead, the focus is on simpler, even skeletal piano compositions which are but buoyed up by the electronic flourishes. The result is a much more minimal, and at times, experimental set of songs that owes as much to the compositions of Erik Satie as it does to, say, Björk or Múm.

The songs here feel less constructed, and more sketch-like. And while Faith’s vocals are as pretty and breathy as ever, they’re also minimized, left to simply float and drift around like some ghostly chanteuse in a smoke-filled lounge.

This gives more room for the group to play with different elements within the spartan framework: Gordon McIntyre’s wistful spoken word on “Palaces+Prisons” (which, when combined with somber piano, conjures up a slightly less misanthropic Arab Strap); the woozy horns on “Tufts”; or the accidentally recorded bells on their cat’s collar (“Norway Kitty”).

However, the duo brings everything back together for the album’s final track, “Japon Luvr,” which is one of the more “straightforward” tracks on By Hearts+Horses — which, in no way, makes the blend of vaguely Asian melodies, icy female vocals, and textural static, buzzes, and clicks any less lovely.

In the midst of all of this change and experimentation, what hasn’t changed is the melancholy, intimate atmosphere conjured up by their music. Indeed, the CD’s more open-ended nature actually adds to that, the ambiguity drawing the in the listener more whereas a more structured sound might be something of a barrier to entry.

These ten songs are complete little worlds unto themselves, fragile and delicate both sonically and emotionally, such that you’re hesitant to breathe while listening to something like “Strawberry Magnet” or “Tufts” lest you break the spell. Rather, best to press “Play” on the CD player and settle into a comfortable chair with a nice cup of tea and your favorite Murakami novel.

On a related note, this is Steed and Faith’s final release under the Park Avenue Music moniker. Moving forward, they’ll be recording as Hearts+Horses. Hopefully, that’s a change in name only, and not indicative of any change in the duo’s sound, which is pretty much perfect as it stands right now.

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