Once upon a time, two musicians each found their way to a city known for its music but not as a place where strangers easily meet. He, returning to the place where he'd spent some childhood years before moving away; she a Seattle transplant by way of San Francisco. In a town like Seattle, putting together a band can be like swimming against the current in a cold river, especially when you don't know anybody.
Arthur & Yu With Tiny Vipers and Ghost Stories. Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., 324-8000, www.chopsuey.com. $6. 9 p.m. Tues., May 15.
"It's kind of weird up here," says bearded, big-eyed Grant Olsen, frontman for local soft-psychedelic duo Arthur & Yu. "I love it, but a lot of people think it's not friendly. You just have to find your people."
Olsen found his person eventually, though not out at a show or even through mutual friends. It was more like a trail of bread crumbs in the forest. Except the forest was the Craigslist musicians classified section, and the trail of bread crumbs was a posting that listed quirky-voiced folkies like Karen Dalton and Melanie. The ad had been placed by Sonya Westcott, a former Rogue Wave bass player, though she didn't make that known at the time. Olsen followed the path—which led to a meeting over beers at the Lava Lounge—and commenced the slow cultivation of a friendship and musical collaboration. It wasn't until around the time that they were getting to the what's-your-middle-name stage of their relationship that they christened their project with a title.
"Her [childhood nickname] was Yu," says Olsen, "and mine was Arthur. It was my grandpa's name, and they would call me that when I was a kid. So we kind of had these childhood names that we didn't go by anymore that fit this band, [which was] in an infant stage."
As time passed, they grew together, and songs that were once mere seeds manifested into complete, blossoming numbers with full arrangements. Those they liked best were plucked and bundled together, ultimately becoming In Camera, Arthur & Yu's full-length debut (due out June 19). Originally intended to be the demo for a record they would eventually make, their creation became the inaugural release for Hardly Art Records, the new subsidiary imprint of local legend Sub Pop. The duo was signed after less than a handful of shows, and when it came down to it, the label wished to release the demo as it was, rather than polishing it up in a studio.
for good reason: The record is a work of pure, unadulterated magic that touches on universal themes of innocence, exploration, and struggle. Reflective of the slow-cooked chemistry between the two members, their vocals mix and mingle like dirt and sweat on a sleepy child's cheek after a long, hot summer's day at play. Westcott's soft, feathery whispers float around and slip easily between Olsen's loud, lingering anchor of a voice, bringing an echo-y Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra feel to the record.
From album opener "Absurd Heroes Manifestos," the warm layers of guitars and shimmering punctuation of tambourine jangles set the tone for the rest of the record. Shades of the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album (an influence Olsen readily admits to) are clearly channeled throughout. While the Velvets are a major presence here, a willowy hippie vibe also looms large. But although the sound is reminiscent of a bygone era, there's a freshness that bursts through, as though it's less about mimicry and more about nostalgia.
The throbbing excitement and fear of children holding a séance in some secret, darkened place on "The Ghost of Old Bull Lee" is almost palpable. Lyrical references to skinned knees, strawberries, and pellet guns recall playful mischief and injury on "Half Years." Beneath the layer of innocence, though, there also bubbles the curious tension of sexual exploration. Songs like "Lion's Mouth," with its hypnotic, pulsating rhythm and lyrics like "My fingers in your buttons are like kissing cousins/Making fabrics come undone," dive headfirst into an honest, frustrated realm of desire.
Creatures also dart in and out of Olsen's songwriting, providing analogies for human emotion and experience much the way they do in fables and fairy tales. Wolves caught in barbed wire evoke frustration and the struggle to get free; birds with broken wings need mending; and heads in lions' mouths symbolize reckless hearts.
In Camera is a solid, vibrant effort that shows great promise for a band just beginning to find its way in the world. And while all fairy tales are full of unexpected twists and hurdles to overcome, like the Hansels and Gretels before them, Arthur & Yu seem to have what it takes to stay the course toward happily ever after.