When we reviewed Michael Chapman & Ehud Banai’s set at Lewes’ Con Club earlier this year, we commented on how surprised we were at just how well the two artists complemented each other. In theory the two share relatively little, past an adventurous attitude and talent on the guitar. Chapman’s idiosyncratic brand of folk is wryly observant, underpinned by disciplined, technical fingerstyle guitar. Banai, on the other hand, trades in a frequently more playful, energetic version of folk that relies as much on generous amounts of delay as it does on flighty lead guitar flourishes.
Despite apparent differences, however, the two’s collaborations have proved highly fertile, with their live shows performed together going down a storm – to the point where an audio document of the collaboration seemed not only essential but also inevitable. ‘EB=MC²’ is that album – originally released a few months ago digitally and now available on CD – and it doesn’t disappoint. A huge part of the impact of the duo’s live show came from the vitality which each gained from the other; it frequently felt as though they were egging each other on with a form of good-natured musical one-upmanship which kept things fresh, without either ever losing sight of the songs themselves. That interplay remains at the heart of ‘EB=MC²’; if anything, the album throws that sense of energy even more into focus than it was during live performance.
The album is excellently engineered – a huge plus here as the relatively spare instrumentation (two guitars and occasional light drum work) necessitates a full, rich tone to flesh out the album’s ambience. Chapman’s guitar sings clear and true here, whilst Banai’s oft effects-laden lead guitar work dances around the mostly finger-picked acoustic guitar work with real style. ‘EB=MC²’ often feels as though it sits at the half-way point between a more traditional song-based album and a free-flowing album of instrumental improvisations. Although almost all songs feature singing – lead vocal duties being shared between the two with Chapman taking the majority – improvisation plays a vital role on the album. ‘The Mallard’ serves as a keen illustration of this point; where the version from Chapman’s excellent ’50’ – released at the start of the year – is richly layered and subtly nuanced, ‘EB=MC²’s take on the song is sparser and more focused on spur-of-the-moment creation. Both are superb and simply represent different ways of approaching the same great song but there’s a definite less-is-more attitude with the ‘EB=MC²’ version which is hard to argue with.
It’s this improvisational approach that lends the record so much of its power. ‘Plain Old Bob’ is a definite highlight – a twisting instrumental underpinned by Chapman’s rock-solid fingerstyle work, Banai’s lead guitar deftly weaving in and out of the deeply resonant chords – it’s a transfixing combination and one that flows with an unforced, natural lilt. ‘EB=MC²’ is a fresh, engaging collaboration and one that stands as a unique entry in the discographies of both artists. It’s an album which often finds its creators becoming lost in the moment, engrossed in their own improvisations. As a listener, it’s not difficult to go the same way.