Album Review

The origins of Joker's Daughter almost sound apocryphal. In 2003, London-born, Greek-descended folkie Helena Costas struck up a transatlantic correspondence with New York-based beat-sculptor Danger Mouse-- well before The Grey Album made him internet-famous and "Crazy" cemented his reputation as a producer with a deep knowledge of pop's usable past. They planned to collaborate eventually, and six years later, they finally have: The Last Laugh, another hyped project for him but a debut for her-- is their first album under the Joker's Daughter moniker, which is based on one of Costas' many revolving stage names.

Costas and Danger Mouse are, to say the least, an unlikely pair. They inhabit vastly different realms, the rift between which gapes wider than the Atlantic. Danger Mouse is a studio musician, his music created indoors, while Costas' music sounds so bucolic as to be almost pagan. A few years ago, we might have labeled her freak folk, but that designation seems meaningless these days and misleading in her case. Comparisons to Joanna Newsom and Marissa Nadler will be inevitable, but Costas places herself squarely in the British folk tradition, harking back to Fotheringay, Pentangle, Vashti Bunyan, and Fairport Convention at their most folk and least rock. It's no small wonder that she would write about talking owls or King Arthur appearing to her during a walk in the country. Her world appears too caught up in the past to make room for contemporary beats and techniques, while Mouse doesn't seem the type to truck with odes to smiling dragonflies. And yet, the unlikelihood of their collaboration makes The Last Laugh at the very least a curio: Don't you want to know how these two sound together?

They sound like a spacey pastoral, a shroom trip along Hadrian's Wall. With contributions ranging from subliminal to unmistakable, Danger Mouse makes Costas' beatific folk sound even more beatific, more folksy-- kaleidoscopic, storybookish-- while she gives him a whimsical framework on which to hang his samples, beats, and synths. For Costas, this is a walk along familiar glens; for Danger Mouse, it's a sojourn to the exotic countryside. Rather than infuse her songs with his own signature sounds, he approaches the project less like a producer and more like a backing band. Nevertheless, he gets to cut loose a little more here than he did on higher-profile collaborations with the Black Keys and Beck.

His playful production defines the instrumental "Chasing Ticking Crocodile" and the bouncy "The Bull Bites Back" almost completely, but to "JD Folk Blues" he adds only a subtle thudding bass and a rambling keys solo to make it sound both Bryter-er and Layter-er. The title track burbles with ominous synth cascades and racing sitar riffs, while squelchy beats drive stand-out "Lucid", reinforcing Costas' lilting melody and excitable chorus. Opener "Worm's Head" gets what sounds like a live band (including Neutral Milk Hotel bass player Scott Spillane), "Jelly Belly" is fitted with a jaunty carnival-reggae beat that almost OD's on Ren Fest, and "The Running Goblin" treads on an oompah bass line and a nervously whistled theme.

In general, there's more Costas on The Last Laugh than Danger Mouse, and she proves a charming guide along these crags and gullies. Her voice, airy and textured, ranges from whispery intimations to impish collusions, although her lyrics, which are capable of impressive wordplay, too often threaten to oversell the fantastical imagery. "Where has July gone?" she asks on "Cake and July". "Is it under my pillow?" And yet, such fancies, though perhaps too tweedily twee on their own, make Danger Mouse's contributions all the more fitting-- not only demanding the animation of his production, but providing a whimsical contrast to his exacting techniques. As the Joker's Daughter, Costas and Mouse are interested in marrying organic and synthetic sounds, not in contrasting them. The resulting album may be steeped in British folk history, yet the pair still finds room to play around with those sounds and traditions. The result is a sparkling debut for her and one of his most interesting collaborations.

Stephen M. Deusner, April 8, 2009