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The soulful progression of There Is No Mountain

Outer limits

Matt and Kali played 300 shows between 2012-14 in 40 different states. Photo credit: Ric Santora

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My first time listening to the Dirty Projectors was a bewildering and dizzyingly delightful experience. David Longstreth was clearly a madman, constantly stretching his vocals beyond the boundaries of good taste and engaging in musicianship that seemed less like a good time and more like self-flagellation. The Dirty Projectors were like a band of masochists, always daring themselves to reach newer and weirder heights. Baroque art-rock, African rhythms, Black Flag, skeletal funk - these elements commingled to create something wildly original and deeply divisive.

Progressive rock had settled into a place where the term "progressive" rarely had anything to do with the genre - to a place where just hearing the term could conjure up a relatively accurate sound in the listener's mind. Meanwhile, the Dirty Projectors came along to explode anyone's preconceptions of what it meant to truly progress one's sound to the outer limits of musical expression.

In this same vein, I find myself listening to Portland's There Is No Mountain, a husband-and-wife duo that seems to set itself up to be just another cutesy, folk-pop duo before sharply and forcefully shifting gears into restlessly experimental trajectory. As opposed to the David Longstreth's bizarrely keening voice, Kali Giaritta and Matt Harmon bring effortlessly lovely harmonies to the table. Musically, though, their adventurousness is evident.

"Matt and I have been playing together for a really long time," says Giaritta. "We moved to Portland from Boston about seven years ago and started a full five-piece rock band. We wanted to tour the country, and so we learned duo versions of all our songs, and we ended up loving it, being able to work on harmonies and create these really intricate arrangements that we always wanted to work on when we were in a five-piece."

"It's been an interesting experiment," says Harmon. "We've been trying to make as much sound and intricacy and complexity as we can, with just two people. When we started, I was just playing an acoustic guitar and strumming chords, and Kali was hitting a single drum. But we really wanted to do something interesting with just two people, so started extra percussion pieces and adding more and more effects to the acoustic guitar, and slowly developing more difficult arrangements to keep us challenged. We've reached a place where we can start with a simple song and take it really interesting places."

What ends up being produced after all these layers of complexity are added is an impossibly nimble sound, jumping from one interesting idea to another without breaking the flow. Ideas are explored for as long as they're useful, then another notion will strike There Is No Mountain, and off they'll go. Trading vocals, coming together in harmony, all backed by breakneck finger-picking and sturdy drumming - these are all hallmarks of There Is No Mountain's sound. In particular Harmon's guitar-playing style seems indebted to Longstreth's, with its vibe of trying to fit as many notes and changes as possible into as small a space as they'll fit. There's a music geek joy that seems to indicate the curative powers of crawling inside music's tougher terrain, as evidenced on "Hiking" - off their new EP, Sea of Storms - which was written entirely in suspended pentatonic scale.

"We were out hiking in the Hood River area, and it was getting dark," says Harmon. "We didn't have any flashlights. We had this melody we were humming, just trying to keep each other from getting scared that we were losing the path. We had been listening to a lot of African music, which often uses this particular mode of the pentatonic scale. That just ended up being an experiment, of trying to write a song that just uses these five notes."

A frightening moment is transformed into a beautiful, musically challenging song about being lost. That's progression.

THERE IS NO MOUNTAIN, w/ Mike Blackburn, 10 p.m. Thursday, March 5, Le Voyeur, 404 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia, donations, 360.943.5710

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