Just the idea of a bass-and-sitar duo is enticing. The two players in the Travis Duo. ubiquitous bassist Trevor Dunn and sitarist Jarvis Earnshaw, join with some first-class special guests who make colorful contributions to their utterly surreal new album Hypnagogia, streaming at Bandcamp. It seems completely improvised, it’s often invitingly enveloping and psychedelic to the nth degree.
Much of the music is akin to a palimpsest painted wet: the undercoats bleed through, sometimes when least expected. To open the album, Dunn’s wryly warping, bowed lines linger below the judicious, warmly spare sitar lines, then the bassist adds more emphatic layers and dissociative loops. The sparse/busy dichotomy is a recurrent trope throughout the album. Earnshaw’s big payoff – a false ending of sorts – is worth the wait.
Daniel Carter and Devin Brahja Waldman’s saxes waft in to introduce the second track, FAQ, then there’s a steel pan-like xylophone line, Earnshaw a distant gleam behind the gently percolating upper-register textures. Dunn punctures the bubbles and joins with guest drummer Niko Wood to introduce a pulse as the sitar grows more prominent, then recedes.
Orchid Hoodwink has Earnshaw’s stream-of-consciousness vocals over a mingled web of sitar, xylophone and metal percussion. Is there a sense of betrayal in Fair Weather Friend? It doesn’t seem so; the washes of bass beneath the resonance of the sitar and Earnshaw’s earnest tenor vocals give the song a warmly rustic feel.
Carter floats in on flute over the hypnotic, sustained textural contrasts of Hitherto. He brings an unhurried, exploratory vibe on sax over increasingly bracing chaos in Uncanny Valley…and then gets pulled into the vortex. Meanwhile, Dunn is having tongue-in-cheek fun at the bottom of a waterslide.
The closest thing to a raga here, and the most contiguous piece, is Folie a Deux, Dunn bowing astringent harmonics and then taking over a very minimalist tabla role as Earnshaw chooses his spots. It’s very Brooklyn Raga Massive, and quite beautiful. There’s also a bonus track, Lollop, which could be a Sanskrit pun. Xylophone and sitar ripple and ping, the horns hover and flutter while Dunn pulses tersely in the midrange. The keening overtones emanating from the bass strings as the group wind out slowly are the icing on this strange and beguiling sonic cake.