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With most bands these days, it seems to be what's outside that counts. What makes the imaginative duo of Sarah Scott and Jonathan Kochmer -- known as Two Loons for Tea -- stand out from the crowd starts inside. Literally in the case of Sarah.

She's got an extra rib – 13 of them on one side rather than the conventional dozen.

Maybe there's a connection between that and the hauntingly beautiful voice, hypnotic melodies and colorfully offbeat lyrics she brings to the music of Two Loons for Tea.

Jonathan, as far as he knows, has the standard number on both sides. But he mirrors his partner's asymmetry with his visionary musical constructions.

Two Loons for Tea returns five years after its second album -- the critically acclaimed, challenging yet seductive Looking for Landmarks -- and having forged intense bonds with an ever-growing legion of loyal fans in North America and Europe, have delivered Nine Lucid Dreams. Independent in spirit and in business (with their growing Sarathan Records label), the album at once delivers on the promise of its predecessors and opens up new artistic vistas and possibilities for the Seattle-based duo.

Their first two albums and expressive concerts have earned comparisons to Massive Attack, Zero 7, Cocteau Twins, Portishead, Psapp, and Rickie Lee Jones, among many others. And Sarah and Jonathan cite a vast range of influences from Aphex Twin to Xenakis, most of the way through the alphabet. All that now, though, seems at best mere starting points.

Recorded in part at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Texas with such friends as drummer Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam, Tori Amos), keyboard master Patrick Warren (Michael Penn, Fiona Apple) and strings wizard Eyvind Kang (John Zorn, Blonde Redhead) helping out, Nine Lucid Dreams brings the alchemy of Sarah's hauntingly beautiful vocals and colorfully imaginative lyrics combined with Jonathan's vivid musical vision to full fruition.

The title is a perfect fit for the songs that are both crystal clear portrayals and vivid visions worthy of Jung. The atmospheres can shift from being as lush as the Seattle landscapes to as arid and spare as the west-Texas desert, the images range from intimate confessions to colorful character sketches. Very much not about trends and hairdos. But what is it about? The tingle.

"Our involvement with music is about making a connection with something larger than ourselves," Jonathan says. "It's that whole-body tingling feeling we get when we're recording or performing and alerts us that we're on the right path." But it's not just for them. It's for the audience. "To hear back reports from others that they've experienced the same tingling at home or at shows is wonderful. It's about creating a community of feeling."

They've certainly created an intriguing community in the character-filled (in both senses of character) array of songs on Nine Lucid Dreams – from the circus-denizens of "The Strongest Man in the World" to the defiant prostitute in "Marietta," from the delicate yearning of "Tragically Hip" to the Beat surrealist narration of "Consuela" (voiced by Jonathan in his frontman debut) and from the fogged impressionistic account of a hairstylist friend's murder in "Eyebrows Are Nature's Makeup" to the space-age jazzbohoedown "Dixie It Up!"

Jonathan and Sarah are an unlikely community themselves. His background is academia and technology, with experience in biostatistics, human genetics, climate change studies, evolutionary biology, Internet development and such, combined with an incurable entrepreneurial bug, is manifested most recently in the expanding operations of Sarathan Records, with a roster that includes releases by Airpushers (two members of the Black Eyed Peas' band), Abra Moore, The Purrs and the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. Jonathan's past shows a knack for initiating and developing successful enterprises since grad school, with the growing Sarathan following suit.

Sarah, in contrast, was raised by a free-spirited single mom, living in such locales as San Francisco's Haight-Asbury, next to a nudist colony in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Spokane Washington, with Sarah carrying the bohemian lifestyle into adulthood.

When they met in the '90s, he was playing the Seattle open-mic circuit and outdoor festivals, and she was singing in an R&B revue. They clicked immediately, hooked up with some ex-members of The New Bohemians, first as Loon, but as the line-up contracted to the duo, the name expanded to Two Loons for Tea.

Nine Lucid Dreams was not necessarily a quicker record than Looking For Landmarks, but the process and results were more fluid than in the past. After an enforced three-year hiatus ("I almost amputated my left index finger in a bizarre accident involving a butter knife and a buffalo burger," Jonathan reports), the two sought a new environment for recording, setting up shop at Willie Nelson's digs in the hills of Texas rather than in rainy Seattle.

"Because of our improvisational recording process, the environment made our music a little sunnier this time, with a touch of the Southwest desert," Jonathan says. And to keep the process fresh, Sarah tried some new techniques.

"I tried on this album to get out of my own head, which I really enjoyed," she says. "In the past, the subject matter has been personal either from me or close friends. In Nine Lucid Dreams, I also borrowed from movies. 'Strongest Man in the World,' was inspired by Bye Bye Brazil, which is about an unlikely crew of characters that who all end up in a traveling Brazilian circus."

Revisiting methods used on previous records, she cut up words and phrases and allowed chance into the creative process by drawing them out of a bag or scrambling them on the floor.

"Pretty much all of the songs on Nine Lucid Dreams were done that way, except for 'Strongest Man in the World' and 'Stand on Your Head,' which is also from a film, about the writer Janet Frame from New Zealand, who passed away just after I wrote the song. She had a difficult life growing up and didn't fit in to her surroundings. It was inspiring to me because I think I always felt a little odd growing up, slightly left of center, like she did, but she found a way to channel her loneliness and discontent into her art."

Through it all, Jonathan has worked to blend a wide spectrum of musical aesthetics into a singular whole – a process he relates to his PhD research at Yale in the field of speciation. "To a large degree, what makes Two Loons for Tea's music unique is that it is a hybrid of many distinct musical species . . . rock, pop, jazz, classical, funk, folk, and various ethnic musics," he says. "And yet, despite the many parental sources, it has a distinct identity of its own."

It's Jonathan and Sarah who sound like proud parents as they discuss their hopes for the album. "We want to do this one right," Jonathan says. "This time, I'm staying away from butter knives and buffalo burgers. I don't want to miss that thrill when people tell us a song has a thematic tie to their lives"

"Or even," Sarah notes, "when they say, 'We made a baby to one of your songs! Or 'your music made me get lucky.' We hear this one a lot! And they share far too many details with us. TMI! Strange to think we're in the bedroom with them."

Press Quotes

"...glossy smoothness that's whimsical and engaging in spirit, but perfectionist in execution – so little of contemporary music bears comparison." ~ The Big Takeover

"...powerful storytelling aligns itself, every ebb to every flow, with excellent musicianship." ~ Amplifier

"...12 sexy tracks with their grab bag of styles ranging from pop to jazz to trip-hop, Dixie, folk, rock and even Latin-laced rumba... a fully realized album for sultry sunsets or sophisticated after-dark engagements." ~ Relix

"Two Loons for Tea moves between somber and lively; the emotional landscape in between is bridged by a variety of ethnic and orchestral instruments -- including vibes, viola, erhu, and tabla -- that seem to breathe new life into the compositions... providing a bit of an experimental and eclectic streak to most of the works." ~ All Music Guide

"...feelgood music for the modern urban sophisticate. [Sarah] Scott's a star in the making." ~ Yahoo!

"...singer-lyricist Sarah Scott and guitarist-composer Jonathan Kochmer perform with an engaging simplicity, their approach is not stripped down. Their subtly atmospheric arrangements already have found the Loons linked to the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead and the Cocteau Twins -- one might add the similarly dreamy duo Mazzy Starr…" ~ Seattle P.I.

"... hauntingly beautiful voice, hypnotic melodies and colorfully offbeat lyrics. ...definitely a band to keep an eye on...Seattle never sounded so sexy." ~ Properly Chilled