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At first glance, Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog appear to have all the trappings of audience-averse experimenters: They’re well-trained and intellectually restless, they dig rock but gravitate toward “compositions” instead of “songs,” and their resumes are full of arty collaborations. On the cover of Where Is Home, their mostly instrumental second album, they look serious and maybe uncomfortable. Inscrutability should ensue, right?
Surprisingly, no. Where Is Home is definitely down-to-earth. Although Janel and Anthony probably have academic or theoretical explanations for every note, noise, and loop on the album, the music is instantly approachable. About half the tracks are short, atmospheric, or collage-like pieces that jibe with the duo’s deep involvement in D.C.’s avant garde scene, but none are truly out-there. (One, the 42-second “Auburn Road,” is a simple and wonderfully bittersweet guitar-and-cello number.) The other tracks are longish and intentionally adventurous, but they tell stories instead of pushing limits.
Anthony, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., mostly plays guitars; Janel, who grew up in Vienna, Va., mostly plays cello. He’s a jazzbo by training (Berklee and New York University) but he’s had plenty of rock gigs (including as a member of Skysaw, led by Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin). She’s layered her undergrad music degree (George Mason) with an adulthood full of non-Western studies—Indian and Persian sounds, mostly. Despite all that, they don’t do much showing off on Where Is Home. Jaunty album-opener “Big Sur” has a repeated, Primus-like run, but overall the song is more Byrds than math rock. And when Janel brings out her Japanese koto for a solo in the enigmatic, deceptively complex “Leaving the Woods,” it’s perfectly suited for the situation. The song itself—a dance between sun and shade—deserves to have one of those elegantly grown-up iPad games built around it.
Although that piece has the most quiet thrills on the album, others can be found: “A Viennesian Life” has a similar mix of bucolic sounds and edgier accents, but it’s slightly more fussy, and “Broome’s Orchard” takes a slowly strummed route to a quasi-orchestral climax that is more about well-edited shimmer than emotional thunder.
There’s some interesting self-sabotage, too. “Where Will We Go” begins with a delicate, lyrical motif that teeters on the edge of darkness for a couple of minutes before giving way to discordant sounds: moaning cello, sinister buzzes, abstract percussion, and so on. The denouement is downcast but undeniably sturdy, and the piece works as a narrative, but it’s not the same on second listen. It’s easy to believe, though, that Janel and Anthony meant it that way—it evokes a life where the purer powers of melody temporarily succumb to the special seductions of sonic chaos. Once the musicians put themselves back together, they really know how to own a mood.