Andras Fox/Sui Zhen
Two separate releases by Melbourne duo Fox + Sui whets appetites for a collaborative EP, writes DOUG WALLEN.
Sui Zhen and Andras Fox aren’t out to take over the world. On their own and as the duo Fox + Sui, the Melbourne artists relish the humble and handmade. Fox is a rising producer affiliated with //This Thing// Collective, while Zhen is a pixie-voiced guitarist-songwriter with a dainty experimental streak. Both use a musical alias, for whatever reason: Zhen is actually Sydney native Becky Freeman and Fox is Andy Wilson. They have a Fox + Sui EP due soon on Two Bright Lakes, and they graced the M+N stage at January’s Sugar Mountain.
Giving us a telling glimpse at their separate contributions to Fox + Sui – the former is all texture and setting, while the latter is more focused on song and lyric – the pair have released solo albums around the same time. Zhen’s Two Seas was made in close collaboration with Sydney producer Tony Dupe (Holly Throsby, Jack Ladder), whose work here echoes the intimate tinkering of Throsby’s Team.
Against Zhen’s child-like voice, which recalls her admitted influences Joanna Newsom and Karen Dalton, a heap of instruments manifest as fleeting quirks. Dupe lends cello, trombone, clarinet, guitar and percussion, and various guests appear on bass, drums and percussion, trumpet and vocals. Besides guitar, Zhen plays a bit of the diminutive lute-like instrument Cuatro, the Omnichord offspring QChord and the banjo-sounding Chinese Moon Guitar. For all those parts, though, Two Seas is defined by its minimalism and by all the open spaces between instruments.
If the single ‘Little Frog’ can feel uncomfortably twee, Zhen impresses more with her standout lyrical allusions on other tracks. “Now we won’t let the dark things bite us again,” she sings simply on ‘Cupboards & Sand’, before repeating the line, “We are happy sometimes” on ‘Tuesday Sometimes’ in a kind of wishful thinking. “The ordinary things become my tools,” she observes on ‘To Keep You From Falling’, summing up her fondness for piecemeal and unexpected sounds. On ‘Golden Cage’, doubled vocals and fragile lyrics are matched in warmth by the gossamer backdrop.
Fox doesn’t appear on Two Seas – recorded with Dupe in Berlin and Wildes Meadow, NSW, and partly alone by Zhen in Sydney – but he did have a hand with Zhen in the album’s photography and design. As for his own record, Daydreaming has just as many songs as Two Seas but clocks in at half the length. A name-your-price download and limited 10” and CD, it’s a breezy 19 minutes that’s hard to pin down. The press kit calls it “a love letter to the MPC” and a tour through decades and continents; both points are valid. Fox is exploring the possibilities of combining sonic facets as quickly as he discovers how to do it. And there’s definitely a lot of musical globe-trotting – ‘Kumakudo’ samples thumb piano and singing from Zimbabwean artist Simon Mashoko’s track of the same name, while ‘Japanese Goodbye’ is a sweet little postcard – but Fox doesn’t settle long in each destination.
That can be a problem. He’s more committed to a vibe than something tangible, whether it’s the bedroom disco of ‘That’s All’, the precise title evocation of ‘Cartoon Jungle’ or the homespun breaks of the 47-second ‘Bamboo’s Blues’. ‘Voicememo 5:32am’ coolly manages a softly stuttered funk undercurrent, and ‘Strungout’ is part daggy retro and part J Dilla snap, but Fox doesn’t trouble himself with realising their further potential. Even when he does see something through, like the repeated hook of ‘Touchy (Instrumental)’, it doesn’t add up to much.
Potential is a key word here: both Zhen and Fox have plenty, and their Sugar Mountain set was enough to whet my appetite for the EP. That said, if Zhen can couch some of her more twee qualities and overt Newsom-isms, and if Fox can explore his ideas in a deeper way, the results will be all the more satisfying.