Janet Beveridge Bean found her own voice in her 2003 Dragging Wonder Lake after more than a decade of drumming for indie power-pop band Eleventh Dream Day, and harmonizing as half of the proto-alt-country duo Freakwater. Fans who were startled and captivated by the spare, twilight aesthetic of her songs, and the nuanced, atmospheric character of her solo vocals, have eagerly awaited a follow-up—and Cathmawr Yards almost counts.
True, Bean's again half of a duo, and her partner, James Elkington (The Zincs), wrote most of the songs. But the pair share a taste for risk, and they're simpatico in their darker leanings: The name "The Horse's Ha" comes from a Dylan Thomas short story about zombies, set in a graveyard called Cathmawr Yards. Fred Lonberg-Holm, the go-to cellist in Chicago's thriving avant-jazz scene, has followed Bean into this new venture from her previous ones, and Elkington knows how to write songs that could be Bean's own.
After the opening track, "Plumb," establishes how much Elkington's Nick Cave-like voice and phrasing can diverge from Bean's lilt, Cathmawr Yards settles into a comfortable compatibility. Elkington's arrangements build on Dragging's experimental folk ambiance with denser instrumentation and occasionally lounge-y subversion, as in the bossa nova beat of "Left Hand." The instrumental "Liberation" is a lovely, sprawling, experimental orchestral jam; an extended interlude on "Map of Stars" suggests music from every culture under the firmament; and "Rising Moon" takes "spookiest love song" honors.