Just 15 well-toured months later, the duo’s exploratory instincts drive them further onwards still on their third album, Mother, named to denote “new life”. As Xylouris puts it, “Mother is the extension of Goats and Black Peak. Three things, all part of a whole. Goats are mothers, Zeus was raised on Amaltheia’s milk, Black Peak is Mother Earth… Mother Earth is the mother of everything.”
Across Mother’s nine tracks, Xylouris White nurture fecund growths from the spaces between their instruments. Sometimes the songs drive with an invigorating urgency; sometimes they brood, plead, yearn and lull. The duo seem to discover each other anew at every turn, teasing the songs out from their fluid chemistry with the kind of virtuosity that knows when to listen, accommodate and learn afresh. “A theme of the album is the significance of simplicity and a child-like approach,” Xylouris explains. “So, we connect mother and child and play instruments as toys. Xylouris White is still gestating.”
That ongoing gestation is a remarkable extension of already remarkable back-stories. Xylouris is a scion of one of Greece’s most revered musical families. His father is legendary singer / lyra player Psarantonis. A child when he began playing the lute, Xylouris would accompany his father in a backing role. Yet just as Psarantonis stretched the lyra’s range, so Xylouris elevated his eight-string laouto to the lead role in his Xylouris Ensemble.
Jim White has commanded international attention for more than two decades as part of Australia’s Dirty Three, storm’s-eye instrumental diviners whose emotionally choppy soundscapes brim with elemental force. Now New York-based, White has often been called on to collaborate with numerous alt-A-listers (including: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Smog), where he redeploys the rolling momentum of free-jazz to variously supple, sensitive and seismic ends. Most recently he can be collaborated with Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett on their acclaimed album “Lotta Sea Lice”.
PJ Harvey likened White’s playing to dancing. Yet if dancers need partners, Mother also pays testimony to a friendship forged over almost three decades. Xylouris was performing with his Ensemble when he met White in Melbourne in the early 1990s; back then, the drummer was in his pre-Dirty Three avant-rock outfit Venom P Stinger. In retrospect, a cycle of influence emerges: Xylouris’s 1990s live contributions to the Dirty Three set a blueprint for Xylouris White, yet the Dirty Three were themselves inspired by Xylouris and Psarantonis.
That mutual exchange resonates throughout Mother. Album opener “In Medias Res” finds the duo already in motion, feeling their way around one another, seeking out ways to bring a song to full bloom. Proving they can also be thrillingly direct when the mood takes them, “Only Love” follows with a brilliantly barrelling sense of momentum, White’s powerhouse percussion urging Xylouris’s liquid-fingered lute-playing and impassioned baritone on to increasing heights of urgency.
From here, Xylouris White proceed as if by intuition, feeling their way around new terrain. “Motorcycle Kondilies” is muscular and epic, White’s rimshots providing on-alert accompaniment as Xylouris’s reaching vocal and dancing lute lines build in intensity. If the marching rhythm and pretty lute melody of “Spud’s Garden” highlights the duo’s occasional elegant side, “Daphne” and “Achilles Heel” showcase Xylouris White’s at their most hypnotic and brooding. “Woman from Anogeia” hosts a particularly emotive vocal from Xylouris; “Call and Response” is the duo at their freeform finest, circling each other querulously, again teasing at possibility. Finally, resolution is embraced openly on the tactile and reverberant “Lullaby”, as lovely a track as any Xylouris White have birthed.
As on Black Peak, Mother’s labours benefited from the midwifery of choice collaborators. Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto produced again. Also on hand this time was Anna Roberts-Gevalt of old-time folk duo Anna & Elizabeth, whose earthy violin/viola lines and exquisitely sighing vocals can be heard on the track “Lullaby”.
The result is an album of extraordinary accomplishment from two supremely seasoned players who’ve kept a close kinship with the richly, rewardingly inquisitive instincts of their youth. In Xylouris’s words, “It's the natural maturity of fruits as they ripen. As fruit matures by the rhythm of nature, so the music grows at its own pace. So, here are two maturing fruits giving the taste of their present maturity – and they’re still children.”