London-born, with a Greek Cypriot heritage, Helena Costas began studying the violin aged seven, moving on six years later to master the guitar and keyboards. Relentless songwriting led to an interest in song production, while a steady slew of London gigs provided perfect confidence-building experiences. The legend goes that, in 2003, Costas sent respected producer Danger Mouse a package of her early home recordings, which led to an ongoing collaboration that’s only now really coming to light. Danger Mouse himself came up with the name Joker’s Daughter, apparently inspired by “one of Helena’s many shifting personae”. With the help of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Scott Spillane and string arrangements from frequent Danger Mouse collaborator Daniele Luppi, Joker’s Daughter have created The Last Laugh, a charmingly odd little debut.
The Last Laugh sinks dreamily into layers of electronica and traditional acoustic wares like the bouzouki, an instrument with a pear-shaped body and a very long neck played by the Muses in ancient Greek myth, although it’s hard to pick out exactly where among Danger Mouse’s intricate patterns. The surreal and the psychedelic are also integral inspirations, given an emotive edge with Costas’s classical violin work and a Baroque-inflected poise via the strata of organ, piano and harpsichord sounds. The lyrical adventures of The Last Laugh melt the real and imaginary into rich, textured tales. Dancing between the conscious and subconscious, Costas’s stories take inspiration from disparate subjects such as food, abstract art and Arthurian legends, and unfold with a dexterous flair, leaping between playful and dark with mischievous abandon.
Each song is special, but those worthy of mention include the eerie ‘Worm’s Head’, both a Free Music Friday alumna and the album’s first single, and ‘Go Walking’, which does medieval-folk with aplomb. ‘Jelly Belly’ adds groove with its reggae-lite cheer and ‘Yellow Teapot’ revels in storybook surrealism. The album also dips into the Gothic, most notably on the magnificent (and presumably Peter Pan referencing) ‘Chasing Ticking Crocodile’ with its organ/piano structure and buzzing synth, and ‘The Running Goblin’ with its deliriously dizzying harpsichord-like intro. Costas’s vocals are enjoyably individual; not ethereal but almost otherworldly, they add a clarity and warmth to the unusual compositions and fancifully cryptic lyrics.
As the album moves between light and shade with a sweeping grace, it becomes ever more apparent that Danger Mouse and Costas share a unique musical affinity, able to juxtapose seamlessly the real and imaginary. The Last Laugh could masquerade feyly behind the “folk-pop” label it is being attached to, but with peculiarities galore and a pinch of something ever-so-slightly unnerving it’s a smidgen too dark to be entirely true to that, admittedly nebulous, genre. An accomplished and imaginative debut from an immensely suited duo.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews
UK release date: 25/05/09; www.myspace.com/jokersdaughter