Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett, an Australian indie-folk duo who live between Melbourne and Brooklyn, never do anything with their tranquil and traditionalist acoustic folk that would startle anyone familiar with the Civil Wars or, for that matter, the ’70s works of Richard and Linda Thompson. In fact, Passerby is so free from modernity that if someone told you it was a long-lost recording by a pair of Bleecker Street bohemians, you wouldn’t blink.
But the poetry of Luluc’s second album and the first available outside of Australia (following 2008′s Dear Hamlyn, a tribute to Randell’s late father, doesn’t succeed despite their classicism. It succeeds because of it.
The listener understands exactly why, for example, the trombone gently joins Hassett’s strummed acoustic guitar at a particular moment, why a scattering of arpeggiated piano notes fall when they do, or why the understated percussion hardly ever hurries things along. This is a musical language we all speak.
And it’s one that’s spoken to some significant fans: Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd is an admirer, and one can instantly see why he invited them to participate in a Nick Drake tribute tour and album. The most important admirer they’ve gathered in their slow-burning career, however, is Aaron Dessner of the National. Not only did Dessner recruit Hassett to sing on the National’s “Lean” for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, he coproduced Passerby in his Brooklyn studio.
And together, Dessner, Hassett and Randell have made a record that replicates the sensation of watching the drift of suspended dust in sunbeams. Time moves with an old-fashioned slowness, and life is merely something to be observed at a distance.
Randell sings, with Judy Collins-like restraint (and with just the right degree of evocative reverb) of “this passerby life,” of wanting in, while being aware that participation comes at a price — as she finds out in “Tangled Heart,” a tale of getting hit on by a creep in a bar.
“Where does this longing come from?” she rhetorically asks. When Randell’s in the city, she’s longing for the country, and vice versa. When she’s alone — and she’s nearly always alone — she’s longing to be with someone. “I can’t help but wonder, do you ever think of me?” she muses at one point, echoing the Smiths’ peerless “Well I Wonder.”
Passerby couldn’t be more autumnal if it tried; indeed, lines like “The light on the leaves, there’s gold in the trees” make this explicit. In Luluc’s world, the leaves are always either falling, or about to. It’s the sound of disenchantment. And, paradoxically, few sounds are more enchanting than that.