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Tunes inspired by a drug dealer and his girl

Panda & Angel build beautifully layered melodies over crunchy beats, 8-bit samples and the symphonic addition of countless instrumental accompaniments.  By Paul Olund
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Mansfield, Ohio:  An otherwise unassuming town in the Appalachian foothills, Josh Wackerly's one-time home is now the motivation for his latest indie project, Panda & Angel. A recent Northwest transplant, Wackerly gleaned inspiration for the Seattle-based group while working with a Mansfield drug dealer, Panda, and his girlfriend Angel. “I started writing songs about the couple, and then wanted to call the band that,” notes Wackerly.

Joined by Touchdown Eagle vocalist Carrie Murphy, drummer Zaun Zehner, bassist Laura Enderle and key master Kara Kikuchi, on the group's upcoming self-titled release, Panda & Angel retell the tragic true-life tale of two junkies from the Midwest.

“Mexico,” the CD's slow-moving opener, deftly navigates themes of star-crossed love: “Daylight is breaking over the shore / I’ll gather the pieces and hide them away / For my love is leaving me now.” Murphy continues in careful whispers — “If I had known that I'd miss you so much, I just would've stayed” — as horn-filled crescendos build to the song's end. Unwilling to let the track fade away quietly, Panda & Angel clash strings, samples and distortion to ride out the tune's final moments in a blaze of glory.

As a whole, the Panda & Angel project is a mish mash of vibrant vocal harmonies and experimental musical arrangements. In Cat Power-Denali-Metal Hearts tradition, Murphy's tightly drawn moan is both seductive and repellant, proving opposites do attract. A balancing act, Wackerly's folk guitar envelopes Murphy's mesmeric voice like a warm blanket, offering just enough pop to keep each track moving briskly in the right direction. Underneath, bursts of Zehner's break-beats, Kikuchi's enchanting keys and a smattering of jangly electronic riffs add a dollop of sugar to an otherwise simple, straightforward folk album.

Such is the case on “Dangerous.” Panda & Angel build beautifully layered melodies over crunchy beats, 8-bit samples and the symphonic addition of countless instrumental accompaniments. Far the band's roudiest track, Murphy makes use of the distortion by spitting out rhymes on addiction and obsession: “It's a dangerous place to be / Wanting something you can't have / Makes you feel sick / I'm in a room where I construct a face that hides what I really crave.” Whether lyrically biographical, or merely another anecdote of Wackerly's junkies, “Dangerous” presents the band in its rawest and truest form (no surprise it was label Jade Tree's first pick for the group's single release).

“Ohio December 24th” rounds out the narrative of Ohio's Panda and Angel, revisiting the couple's somber story of love and addiction under Murphy's sincere vocal swell. In the disc's most honest moment, Murphy sings: “Before the pills I loved you more / Had myself shifting from hand to sleep to arm / That final breath you drew beside my sunken chest and your dead heart.” The emotion is so palpable, that for a brief moment it overtakes the music and takes on a life of its own.

Seriousness aside, the Panda & Angel crew ably crank out songs that are equally upbeat and infectious. “Following the Death of Her” traipses along comfortably and “A Thousand Whispers,” the troupe's ambient closer, builds on spacy, Mac-generated threads to create the perfect stargazer anthem.

But Panda & Angel’s most memorable material still comes from the band's exploration of the austere, rapping on loneliness, suicide and drug addiction with the authority of those who have lived it. And it's during these moments that the boys and girls of Panda & Angel are at their best — sincere, sad, haunting and beautiful all at the same time.

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