Harpist Mary Lattimore's solo work stands in a class by itself, merging a patient approach to experimental ambient sounds with a mastery of her majestic instrument. When she moved away from regular work as a session player on records for friends like Kurt Vile, Thurston Moore, and Meg Baird to focus on making her own albums, a world of luminous and endlessly beautiful sounds started forming. At first glance, it may seem strange to pair Lattimore's gentle if tumultuous playing with Mac McCaughan, best known for his role in the long-running buzzy punk melodists Superchunk. With New Rain Duets, the duo offer four placid improvisations consisting of Lattimore's slightly processed harp sounds and the subdued support of various synthesizers, samples, and electronics from McCaughan. While McCaughan has always been musically daring, flirting with jazz inflections on Superchunk records and wandering at times into non-rock territory in his songwriting, his synth dabbling before this collaboration was minimal, limited to self-released projects and deconstructive remixes. Despite this relatively less explored role for McCaughan, New Rain Duets finds both players communicating attentively and wandering through several different slow-moving and twilight-toned moods.
These four pieces are simply titled with ascending roman numerals, and all hover in similarly soft, cinematic places. On the 11-minute-plus album opener, "I," there's a tentative sense of the duo getting familiar with the environment they're creating, McCaughan looping a cautious four-note melody that both he and Lattimore skitter around noisily before building on top of it with counter melodies and responses. By the time the piece reaches full steam, things have snowballed from their shy beginnings into fiery and expressive clusters of harp notes mirrored by airy, abstract synth lines. Throughout the album, there's a calm-before-the-storm feeling. "III" plays out like both Lattimore and McCaughan are stranded in the desert, helplessly watching a dust storm approach and bracing for the destruction. There are also moments that feel like the restoration that comes after the storm, as with the blur of synth arpeggios and uncertain harp figures that gradually bloom into a peaceful closure on the lengthy final track, "IV."
The most interesting aspect of New Rain Duets is how strongly both players' personalities come through. The snarly edge McCaughan has displayed since the late '80s in his work with Superchunk carries over to his synth compositions with a different timbre and can be felt just as intensely with these sprawling explorations as in any of his two-minute punk songs. Lattimore's tranquil and introspective playing guides the duo's meditations to some of the same cosmic zones as her solo work. The combination of the two personalities results in a beautifully troubled unfurling, one that offers quiet comfort in its moments of both darkness and light.