Breadfoot (Stephan Meyers) is best known for bringing country blues guitar 'n' banjo pickin' from the Mississippi Delta to the NYC anti-folk scene; Anna Phoebe is a London violinist who works with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their transatlantic pairing began the same way many musical partnerships do: in a bar. However, Tea with Leo
is far more than a result of plans laid between beers and scaled down in the harshness of a hangover.
It's an unassuming record, lasting about 25 minutes (including the disc's one annoying feature, the empty space before the bonus track) and remaining on a fairly even keel from beginning to end. While Breadfoot and Phoebe's organic, intricate arrangements most closely evoke Dirty Three, Tea with Leo displays none of that group's ostentatious emotional heights. Instead, it charms you with how calm and focused it can be while still sounding like two friends jamming. And that's basically what it is: Tea with Leo was recorded in two days. It shows, too -- not in the performances, which are top-notch, but in the album's open, improvisational feel. The duo coax out a variety of moods and sounds: swingy, detuned guitar on opener "A Hard Day in Manhattan", in which Phoebe's violin gets to perform most of the acrobatics; jaunty, echoing banjo and fiddling on "Polly Loved Me (I Know)"; measured picking, mysterious string melodies and finger cymbals on the East-meets-West-ish "Smoking on the Stoop".
Tea with Leo's versatility keeps it from drifting into background-music-land; Breadfoot and Phoebe are an odd pairing, but a well-matched one. Let's hope they get together again soon.