Mi & L'au, In the Country | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Mi & L'au, In the Country

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MI & L'AU's beatific backstory tends to precede them. Mira Romantschuk (aka Mi), a gorgeous waif from Finland conversant in six languages, was working as a model in Paris when she met Laurent Leclere (aka L'au), a sound-track musician. They fell in love, Mi picked up French, and together they moved to a remote cabin outside Helsinki, where they spent four years living simply. They also wrote and recorded songs, 14 of which ended up on their lovely eponymous debut, released last fall on Michael Gira's Young God label. The tunes' spare, delicate guitar patterns support the breathiest, most private kind of singing, and the music's so intimate that the idea of publicly sharing it seems to be secondary. But the songs were fleshed out, lightly, by Gira, Devendra Banhart, and members of Akron/Family, among others; they added depth to the duo's recordings with well-placed strings, banjo, and brass that didn't cover up details like exhaled breath or a creaking chair. Mi & L'au have inevitably been pulled into the freak-folk orbit, but they combine weightlessness with a sense of focus in a way that sets them apart from their less disciplined peers.

The music that Norwegian trio IN THE COUNTRY creates also feels weightless, but underneath its pretty, meditative sheen there are some compelling rumbles. The group's led by pianist Morten Qvenild, a prime mover in Norway's progressive music scene: he's an ex-member of jazz-electronica fusion group Jaga Jazzist, a current member of the art-rock ensemble Shining, half of the arty pop duo Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, a writer and arranger for singer Solveig Slettahjell, and a member of the hit pop-rock band the National Bank. On In the Country's debut album, last year's This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (Rune Grammofon), Qvenild shapes the delicate melodies of his songs--as well as an unexpectedly straight reading of Ryan Adams's "In My Time of Need"--while bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pal Hausken manipulate the groove like so much putty, abandoning any clear sense of pulse and turning the molasses-slow rhythms into a sort of elegant trudge. The two create an exquisite tension between their playing and Qvenild's machinations, which draw on Paul Bley's measured improvisations and Morton Feldman's spacious compositions. In the Country have been compared to the trio led by fellow Norwegian Tord Gustavsen, but In the Country's music gets an extra boost from some off-kilter change-ups. This show is the group's Chicago debut, one of only three gigs on its current tour.

Mi & L'au headline, Shelley Short (see the Meter) plays second, and In the Country opens. Sat 2/4, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $8.

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