Guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone have produced intriguing-cum-unsettling music together in Anthony Braxton’s 12tet + 1, as well as on a previous duo outing, On and Off. Yet even listeners familiar with those releases might feel jarred by what emanates in the opening seconds of Thin Air: their singing voices. The harmonies that hang over a spare guitar melody aren’t flat, but they aren’t sweet either. Microtonal might be a more accurate description of their gothic-folk delivery, putting it closer to Halvorson’s rock-oriented duo project People than any of their jazz-related efforts. The unsettling voices show in a number of different ways in the stark music. In the title track, dirgelike verses continually explode into sections of free skronking. Voices don’t enter until the end of “Sinking” to offer a closing statement to a cross-breed of semi-country twang and guitar fuzz.
Still, as interesting as their vocals are, Halvorson and Pavone shine best as musicians and the instrumental passages provide the best moments. As spare as the musical combination can be, the unorthodoxy of their writing makes up for the minimalism. “Barber” has a mischievous quality, beginning with a repetition of three staccato notes, to which they keep returning between instrumental explosions, before breaking into a lopsided riff guided by the guitar. “Juice” goes for a ballad-like mood, with some sweet bowing from Pavone. This mood returns in “Lullabye” and its accompanying piece, “ … and Goodnight” which close the album and prove Halvorson and Pavone can be just as sentimental as they can be edgy.