279: Ásgeir, ‘Torrent’

Posted by jeff on Mar 2, 2018 in Nordic, Rock


Ásgeir – ‘Torrent’

Ásgeir – ‘King and Cross’

Ásgeir – ‘Higher’

Ásgeir – ‘In Harmony’

Ásgeir – ‘Going Home’

Ásgeir – ‘In the Silence’

Ásgeir – ‘On That Day’ 

Ásgeir Trausti (b. 1992) grew up in Laugarbakki, a hamlet of 40 residents (mostly retirees) in northwest Iceland. There weren’t any other kids, so he grew up playing guitar. By 12 he had formed a garage band in the nearby metropolis of Hvammstangi (pop. 580).

He’s now an ultra-cool, fully tattooed indie acoustic cum electronica singer/songwriter whose  international career is taking off. But he spends every summer in Laugarbakki planting trees. “I like to go back home as often as possible,” he says. “I don’t like being in a series of big cities that I don’t know. There’s too much stress. I need the open air and the quiet.”

Ásgeir makes low-key, ghostly, introspective music with an expressive, tremelo falsetto. Think Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, think Jonsi of fellow Icelandic band Sigur Rós, think James Blake; think Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. (I see s/he has changed hir name, and presumably some other identifying features, and is now called Anhoni.)

Ásgeir debut album has been bought by some 10% of the Icelandic public (that’s about 30,000 copies), and has charted around the world (#8 in Australia, #40 in the UK). It was nominated for Best Nordic Album of the Year. And there’s a lot of fine music coming out of Scandinavia.

For about a year now, I’ve found “In the Silence” (the English version) to be really fine music. The vocals are heart-rending. The songs are full of entrancing, mystical landscapes and trolls, buoyed by pop hooks that just don’t let go. And the production, the sound palette? Worth the price of admission.

His original career choice was the javelin, but when he hurt his back he started to spend more time on his hobby. He made a demo EP at home, and at 19 took it to a respected young musician/producer, Guðm. Kristinn Jónsson (aka Kiddi – unless I missed something in translation; it’s Icelandic, after all). The next day they started recording what would eventually become the album “Dýrð í dauðaþögn”. It was the first time Ásgeir was in a recording studio.

They didn’t set out to record an entire album. They were just re-recording songs from the demo. Ásgeir was fooling around, playing with new instruments and recording techniques. At one point, Kiddi brought in a dozen studio musicians. When he found out that Ásgeir plays all the instruments himself, he let them go.

So while Kiddi was mixing, Ásgeir would go into another room and write new songs. He’s not much into words. If you look at an interview (or acoustic performance) with him, you’ll see what an extreme introvert he is. Talking for him is akin to throwing a javelin for the rest of us (the Olympic ones are over 2.5 meters long). He likes quiet.

Son and Father

But his father is a respected poet and lyricist. So he has his father write his lyrics. “I like to have my father involved, like a family thing. I know that I won’t do as good a job. I trust him, and he’s really into it…I’ve always admired my father’s work, ever since I was a kid.”

Think about that. Do you know anyone who would talk about his father like that? Do you personally know any 21st century human being who would say “I’ve always admired my father’s work”? Can you imagine any budding rock star anywhere in the world who would prefer to spend his summers in a village of 40 old people, in the middle of a bleak and grey landscape, planting trees, rather than touring California with his band?

Ásgeir’s music reflects that kind of organic, peaceful, rooted mindset. While being totally young, cool, hip, relevant, au courant. Welcome to the internet, folks.

So Ásgeir came to Kiddi with these passionate, acoustic songs about Air and Home and Silence and Birds Singing. And together they produced a wonderful, engaging, beautiful album I’ve listened to many dozens of time. It was such a hit in Iceland that they rerecorded the vocals in English, the translation a collaboration of Ásgeir, his dad, Kiddi, and indie stalwart John Grant, who just happened to be living in Reykjavik and speaks Icelandic.

The musician and the producer generously provide a fascinating (for me at least) track by track commentary on how this wonderful sound picture was composed. It’s a riveting (for us music nerds) peek into the collaborative work of an incredibly talented young songwriter from ‘out there’ and a gifted, sophisticated producer.

‘Higher’ – Based on an electronic loop, doubled with a grand piano. “I lift my mind to the sky/and I let it take flight./The wind carries to my ears/precious sounds of life./Soon I break all ties which bind me to this earth…/Higher, higher/Far away/And the glare of this world/is small and humbled.”

‘In the Silence’, the title track. Like the entire album, it began acoustically, and they consciously set out to add electronics “to make it cool.” They used three different bass players till they found the groove they wanted.

‘Torrent’ is for me the most intriguing cut on the album, hence our Song of The Week. I literally lost sleep trying to figure out the time signature of the verse. Ásgeir: “It’s kind of 7/8, but also 4/4. It’s kind of…all over the place.” Listen to the song. He’s a whole lot more eloquent playing it than describing it. He calls it “a drum song”. To my mind, it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s a rhythmic trip. Kiddi says they recorded the drum track in a stairwell, using “4 or 5 drum kits, to achieve that ‘wall of sound’ effect.” Phil Spector’s legacy popping up in Reykjavik. Phil should be smiling from his California cell.

‘Going Home’ – It’s a true story. We all know that you can’t go home again after you’ve left. But apparently there are still places in the world where one never really leaves home. “Long is the path ahead,/and though my body tires/and I have far to go,/ I know I’m going home,/know I’m going home.” The lyrics may not carry much weight alone. But they’re not meant to – they’re there to serve the whole. And the whole carries tremendous emotional weight.

‘On That Day’ is in a similar vein. What reached out and grabbed me so strongly is the repeated hook at the end, “You don’t get to call the shots that way.” It was an ear-worm for weeks, warm and affective and welcome. Yeah, just that phrase. “It’s so true.” All over life. You don’t get to call the shots that way. Ouch.


‘In Harmony’ faithful to the acoustic demo, embellished with a stunning, grandiose production.

‘King and Cross’, the closest thing to a hit, with a video full of authentic Norse elves and trolls.

Ásgeir’s second album, “Afterglow”, is quite a different trip. He’s following very much the same path as Bon Iver and James Blake, experimenting in distortion, testing the boundaries of sound. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Check out “In the Silence”. Take a couple of hours. Or days. Or weeks. I’ve found that Laugarbakki music to be both pastoral and hip, genuinely organic and convincingly innovative.

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278: The Danish String Quartet, ‘Sønderho Bridal Trilogy – Part II’/Dreamers’ Circus, ‘Kitchen Stories’

Posted by jeff on Feb 9, 2018 in Classical, New Acoustic, Nordic, Song Of the week

Spring is here, even though it’s still February. My head is crunching and comparing and contrasting and generally consternating itself, but my heart is a-flitting and a-fluttering like a 17-year old girl in the throes of first love. For I have discovered joyous new music that makes me bounce and grin and tap my feet; and, gosh and b’golly, wish there were a Danish country dance floor for me to get out onto and jig and reel and polsk like a Danish country fool.

And you know what kind of music it is? It’s – I’m asking politely. No, I’m begging: Please read this paragraph through to the end – a Danish classical string quartet playing Nordic roots music. Now I know you may well have no great interest in roots music; no vested interest in Danish music; and no significant interest in a young string quartet. All I’m asking is that you listen. Because it’s passionate, human, engaging, irresistible, ebullient, and you can’t help but love it.

Danish String Quartet – ‘Gammel Reinlender fra Sønndala’

Dreamer’s Circus – ‘A Room in Paris’

Did you notice the same violinist in both groups?
Two hours after Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was born in 1983 in a small Danish village, his parents (who had met on the folk-dance floor) brought in a traditional fiddler to play for the swaddler, to welcome him to the world in a properly harmonious way.

The Danish String Quartet

“The three of us [Rune, violin; Frederik Øland, violin; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola] met very early in our lives in the Danish countryside at a summer camp for enthusiastic amateur musicians. Not yet teenagers, we were the youngest players, so we hung out all the time playing football and chamber music together. During the regular school year we would get together often to play music and just have fun… All of the sudden, at the ages of 15 and 16, we were a serious string quartet. It all happened so fast that none of us seemed to notice the transition.”

The three drafted Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, a Norwegian cellist, and their career was off and running, despite the violinists’ full-time gig in the Copenhagen Philharmonic (where Rune was concertmaster!). They played the whole classical string quartet repertoire, Haydn and Beethoven and Shostakovitch, as well as the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (d. 1931). In 2013, the violinists left CPH:Phil to concentrate on The Danish String Quartet, which was busy touring worldwide and winning awards and whatnot.

But they’re not just ‘a covers band’, as Rune calls them. Almost from the beginning, DSQ would play as an encore traditional Scandinavian folk music they had arranged for the string quartet. They could do it sitting or standing on a formal concert stage.

But watch what happens when they let their proverbial hair down (of course, their very shaggy demeanor is part and parcel of their utter charm), lose the suits and don the Plastic Man t-shirts in this NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

These guys aren’t just charming. And not just tighter than tight. And not just ridiculously good-looking. They’re playing music. It matters to me not a whit that it’s couched in a style far from what I grew up with. It’s human beings playing joyous human music.

DSQ has two fine CDs, “Wood Works” (2014) and “Last Leaf” (2017, ECM). They’re both rich, exciting, fun, exultant. I feel lucky to have discovered them.

Roots, Americana Newgrass

I wouldn’t want to have to take a blindfold test on distinguishing between some of the Nordic, Celtic and American roots music I listen to. I’ve asked more than a couple of Scandinavian professionals involved in this style about the affinity of Nordic to Celtic roots music. They all say, as if they were thinking of it for the first time, “Yeah, they do sound very similar, you know?”

It turns out that roots are roots, and it seems there is some sort of border-defying musical collective unconscious operating here.

DSQ’s roots music begs comparison with the whole burgeoning world of Americana roots music (aka Newgrass). Check out, for example, “Appalachia Waltz“, a fine album by Mark O’Conner, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. Or this Newgrass all-star team Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, playing their own NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

It’s fine, admirable music. Copelandean, as they would probably like to be called. I love the attitude and the gender-bending and the virtuosity. I’ve admired it for quite a while now, keep going back to it—and keep leaving, unsatisfied.

They just don’t got the voltage. Listen to the DSQ playing this original traditional-styled tune ‘Shine You No More’. I don’t know about you, but that gets my pulse racing.

Dreamers’ Circus 

But that’s only half the story.

“We met by chance one night in 2009 during a folk festival in Copenhagen. Ale [on cittern, a traditional 10-stringed mandolin/bouzouki-ish instrument] and Rune were standing in the corner of a pub jamming some folk tunes. Nikolaj just came in, sat at the piano and began to play along. The three of us ended up playing together all through the night.”

Did you watch ‘A Room in Paris’? Wow. How can you not love that?

Want more? Check out the second half of this one, from 3’35”

And check out ‘Carrousel Prime’, the encore from that same festival. These guys are so much sexier, more charismatic, more fun than anything else I’ve seen in a long, long time.

See where Rune starts dancing? That’s not a Mick Jagger look-at-me dance, that the very human dance impulse, rising from the roots of many generations dancing the same dances to the same tunes.

And they also did a series of knockout concerts with CPH:Phil. They even present Mozart in Folk Style, roots trio + classical orchestra. Sounds a bit far-fetched? Just watch it. Want some more of this? Here’s ‘Prelude to the Sun’, a Nordic folk remix of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, Preludio, ‘recomposed’ by Dreamers’ Circus.

Dreamers’ Circus – ‘Father Into It’

Dreamers’ Circus – ‘Fragments of Solbyn’. This ain’t no casual jig. It’s classical in form, Saturday night roadside bar for enthusiasm.

You think they only know how to rock? Check out the elegance and intelligence and utterly refined Danish aesthetic in ‘City Gardens’.

Check out their wonderful album “Second Movement”.

Rune, DSQ, DC and Old Stories Told Anew

Dreamers’ Circus has this amazing tonal blend, and they’re playing very tightly. I struggle (gleefully) to pick out which instrument is playing which note. It’s a pleasure I experienced with Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album.

Rune: “In DSQ there are four stringed instruments of same nature. When it really works, you can achieve one single voice. I brought that same mindset to Dreamers’ Circus. The violin has a great range of the types of sounds it can make. It’s primarily a melodic instrument, but it can also be percussive. The cittern is usually driving the rhythm, but we try not to lock ourselves into these roles. When I play with accordion, I’m very conscious of when I try to blend and when I try to stick out. You give focus and you take focus; sometimes you shadow, sometimes you solo. We’re striving towards an ideal of a unified voice. Before we go on stage, we remind ourselves: One voice, one story, one message, one instrument. That’s the way to convey a story.”

Every summer Rune goes to Sønderhø on Fanø island, with 3345 residents and 100 traditional local songs going back hundreds of years, almost all in D major or G major (only one in a minor key!). He dances, smokes a pipe and plays music. Sounds pretty hygge to me.

Why does the music of the Danish String Quartet and Dreamers’ Circus speak to me? Who can say why a piece of music speaks to you? Or what it’s saying, for that matter? But it does. Clearly, passionately, directly. From the roots up.

Thanks to Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog post.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like SoTW 071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’, an overview of Nordic roots bands from a few years ago.



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273: The Necks, ‘Sex’

Posted by jeff on Nov 3, 2017 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Other, Rock, Song Of the week

The Necks, ‘Sex’

Rachael Price, ‘They All Laughed’  (the whole song)

Tarzan and Jayne

When I was 11, I wanted to be The Lone Ranger.
When I was 12, Mickey Mantle.
When I was 13, Mickey Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield’s husband).
When I was 14? A disk jockey on WSAI.
When I was 15? A disk jockey on WSAI.
When I was 16? A disk jockey… Well, I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate.

But I’ve matured. I no longer want to be a DJ on a Hit Parade station. I want to have a late-night slot on a very hip FM station, where I can wear shades (sunglasses) On Air and pick songs not by teeny-bopper sales (or by the $ of the distributor’s gift to the DJ) but by my very meandering rivulet of semi-consciousness.

So I’m going to fulfill my little fantasy this week, and present you with my personal Top Ten of the past fortnight or so, the best of the music that tracked its dirty little feet across my virtual turntable. In ascending order, just like at WSAI, to keep suspense at its peak.


[If you click on the What’s New tab on this page, you’ll see a chronological list of all SoTWs]

#10 Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle bootleg, 1971)

Yes, we dedicated SoTW 270 to this very cut, and SoTW 271 to a wider sampling of bootleg covers by Laura. I’ve been binge-ing on her bootlegs, and you’ll probably be hearing more about this inspiring music. But for a month now, I just can’t get enough of this thrilling, chilling treatment of a superb song I had previously not appreciated sufficiently.

#9 Barbra Streisand, ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’

I’ve listened to BS’s version of ‘Stoney End’ a couple more times, trying to figure out why that was a hit instead of Laura’s original, but to no avail. The world is not a fair place. I wrote a posting a long time ago (SoTW 20) about why I admired Barbra Streisand until she became famous at the age of 22, and never since. I listened to the “Stoney End” album. It’s not embarrassing, just a waste of vinyl. Or bytes or whatever. Barbra trying to be hip. She should just be Barbra.


But I did trip over this little gem—Randy Newman’s stunning ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, recorded for the “Stoney End” album (1971), released only in 2012 on her “Release Me” CD. It’s just Streisand with Randy accompanying her on piano. It doesn’t have a single electron of the sincerity of the original, from Randy’s masterpiece first album, which had its own posting in SoTW 85. But still. The girl’s got pipes.

#8 Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

While we’re on the subject of chanteuses shouting, I happened to hear the original version of Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s ‘Alfie’, by Cilla Black, orchestrated and conducted by Burt himself. Coincidentally, this song also had its own dedicated SoTW 220.

There’s a great clip of that session, mucho recommended. And here’s the two of them reflecting back on that recording session years later.

Cilla Black (nee Cilla White) was born in Liverpool (1943), a pal of The Beatles, managed by Brian Epstein. They gave her ‘Love of the Loved’, ‘It’s For You’, and ‘Step Inside Love’. Like many non-Brits, I was surprised to learn that Cilla became a major media ikon in the UK, hosting her own TV variety shows and whatnot. You might enjoy the rather charming and unpretentious TV biopic, “Cilla”.


#7 Värttinä, ‘Lasetus’

Flowing along the ‘women singing strongly’ stream, Värttinä is a Finnish world music band that’s been around for 30 years. They started out as a youth group collective, and have morphed into a successful group with floating membership, which “revived the unique polyphonic music of the Finno-Ugric people of Karelia”, eschewing ‘the long-accepted cultural notion that women should sing unaccompanied’. Oh, those Finns!

Come on, give it a chance!. No dedicated SoTW to these gals (yet), but we have explored the Finnishish band Folk‘Avant in SoTW 264, Nordic Roots music in general in SoTW 71 about Lyy, and their cousins The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – SoTW 30.


#6 The Real Group, ‘Li’l Darling’

Scandinavian singers. And in two weeks, Maestro Peder Karlsson is coming to our shores, so you know who I’m going to be listening to: the young The Real Group. Here they are in a favorite of mine, written by Neil Hefti for Count Basie’s seminal album “Atomic Basie”. Here’s SoTW 168 on ‘Girl Talk’, another great song by Hefti. And here’s SoTW 101, featuring Kurt Elling’s version of ‘Li’l Darling’.

The Real Group in its young days made a lot of pretty perfect music. I’ve written about them a lot, including SoTW 59 ‘Joy Spring’ and SoTW 209 ‘Waltz for Debby’.

The human voice. The only instrument created by God. You listen to the young The Real Group, and you know He really knew what He was doing.


#5 Vocalocity, ‘Nueiba’

Well, that’s easy. The Real Group inspired the entire genre of Modern A Cappella, of which I’m a proud devotee. Four years ago, together with my partner and buddy Ron Gang, I formed Vocalocity, a 40-voice rock choir/power vocal ensemble. I’ve written about us in SoTW 207.

One of the many aspects of the group that I’m very proud of is that we sing pretty much only scores that were custom-written for us by the greatest arrangers of this genre in the world. We also get a big kick out of commissioning foreigners, especially them Nords, to revisit classic Israeli rock-pop standards.

So here’s a brand-new studio recording of Vocalocity singing ‘Nueiba’ by Shlomo Gronich. It’s arranged by the wonderful Ms Line Groth Riis. Here’s Gronich’s original.

The song is from 1982, when Israelis were feeling isolated and threatened militarily, politically, economically. Young people would take off for Nueiba for a few days, an oasis in the Sinai desert on the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was an ultimate escape, an isolated, idyllic getaway from all the world’s stress (the first 8 bars of Line’s arrangement). I was there in 1971, the week before my wedding. Sand, sea, surf, quiet, peace. Unspoiled, peaceful, natural beauty (all the rest of the song).


#4 Touché, ‘But Beautiful’

Paddling along the a cappella stream, Jesper Holm is a great conductor of Modern A Cappella. We in Israel just brought him to teach a group of conductors as part of a course given by the Royal Academy of Music from Alborg/Aarhus, the only institution in the world (I believe) to offer a degree in conducting this music. His group, Touché, is the closest I’ve heard to vocal perfection. You hear a cut and say, ‘Okay, they gave it a face-lift in the studio’. But I’ve heard them live, twice. They’re perfect live on stage as well.

‘But Beautiful’ was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for Bing Crosby to sing to Dorothy Lamour in the movie ‘The Road to Rio’ in 1947. I think Jimmy and Johnny would be pretty darned pleased to hear what Jesper and Touché have done with it.

#3 Jacob Collier, ‘Human Nature’

If you want to know what’s new in music, listen to what Jacob has done in the last two months. Here’s a new live performance of his treatment of the Michael Jackson song. I think it’s pretty great.

I’ve sung Jacob’s praises in SoTW 236 and will probably continue to do so in the future. He’s been working with a singer I admire, Becca Stevens (I had the opportunity to ask her all my geeky questions.) Here’s their brand new clip together. They seem to be having a lot of fun.

I have some reservations. He’s an overwhelming genius, everyone agrees. But he has yet to touch my heart. Is he freakishly talented, but merely a millennial with a digital personality? Or is he being expressive, just in a language I don’t perceive, let alone understand? Ah, Jeff, why spoil the party?


#2 Rachael Price, ‘They All Laughed’

Guesting on Chris Thile’s “Prairie Home Companion” (PBS) just two weeks ago. On the site you can find links to a whole bunch of really outstanding videos which I recommend highly.

Chris Thile is a great musician (see SoTW 131), and I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before on clips here such as ‘Calvin and the Ghosties’ and Your Lone Journey / Hell Among the Yearlings , by Chris and Rachael and an all-star band. This (and a bunch of other clips from the show) are knockout music.

But it’s Ms Price who steals the show with the Gershwins’ standard ‘They All Laughed’. By all rights, this should be #1, but I wrote about Ms Price in collaboration with Vilray in my very last posting, SoTW 272, and previously about her band Lake Street Dive (SoTW 206), and you gotta give someone else a break with the headline.

She does the Peggy Lee ‘I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart’ and Simon’s ‘American Tune’.

But it’s ‘They All Laughed’ that’s been keeping me awake at night. I’d like to tell you what Rachael Price does to me when she does that thing with her shoulders and her hands on “Ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s got the last laugh now?”—it’s like… it’s like… Well, there might be kids reading this, so I’m not going to write it.

Isn’t the suspense killing you? Drum roll, fanfare, and–


#1 The Necks, ‘Sex’

Some of my friends and I have been listening to The Necks pretty much non-stop for the last few weeks. They’re an Australian jazz-rock minimalist piano trio that’s produced about 20 distinguished but indistinguishable albums over the past 20 years.

Most of the albums, like “Sex”, contain one single hour-long cut droning along timelessly on only two chords, or even one, with miniscule changes. It’s hypnotic, it’s a trip. I really enjoyed writing SoTW 86 about Steve Reich and Minimalism, because I learned an awful lot doing the research.

The Necks “Sex”

One needs music like this. Intelligent entertainment. I need music all the time. But you can’t listen to ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Crescent’ when you’re just waking up, or when you’re trying to fall asleep. Or when you’re trying to concentrate. Yeah, sometimes The Real World raises its ugly little head and demands the focus of our attention. Like Work, or Wife, or just mental Weariness. But I still need music. And The Necks are so darned useful for sharp, convincing, meaty background music.

All of The Necks’ albums sound pretty much alike (and I’ve been listening to all 20, over and over). Full disclosure: I chose “Sex” just to catch your eye, because I’m pleased to promulgate obscure music which deserves to be heard. I admit, they’re not the most inspiring music I’ve ever heard, but one can’t be inspired all the time.

They keep me going. But when I’ve caught my breath, I keep going back to #2, Rachel (‘Ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s got the last laugh now?’) Price. She takes my breath away. She tries harder.

That’s all for now, folks. See you again next week, same time, same imaginary station.

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264: Folk’Avant, ‘9th of August’

Posted by jeff on Jun 9, 2017 in Nordic, Song Of the week

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’

Folk’Avant – ‘Gryningsland’

Folk’Avant – ‘Toivo’

One disc has monopolized my virtual turntable now for 12 days consecutively, non-stop. It has the sound palette of a magical kingdom hidden deep within an endless forest, replete with intrigues and yearnings and 21st century relationships.
It’s “Gryningsland”, the debut album by the Swedish-Finnish ‘folkmusik trio’ Folk’Avant.

Wait! Do not X me! Watch this! Trust me.

Is that not magic?

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’
FolkavantSilently, so that no one could hear us, we sneaked into a house where everyone else was asleep. Staying awake all night, until you finally packed your bag, closed the door, leaving a resting body behind.

I just keep playing the disc over and over and over, 12 days now. And I’m not getting tired of it. That sound. The girls (sorry, that’s a word I still use, with all the respect and affection in the world) tell me that that’s what the trio actually sounds like live.
That warm, resonant fiddle. It feels like the strings being played are still in my own gut.
Those magical bell-like tones. Fantasy and fancy, pristine and elegant, precise and timeless.
That Swedish contralto voice – strong, knowing, uninflected, unflinching.  Confident and independent. Unafraid of being vulnerable.

A gossamer walk through an endless, enchanted forest. 2017.

Know what it keeps reminding me of? ‘Guinevere‘ or ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda‘, 50 years old—Scottish psychedelic folk. Donovan, from the very wonderful 1968 album “Sunshine Superman”. Separated by 50 years, 2000 miles, and millennia of disparate folk traditions. Welcome to the internet. Welcome to the human soul.

1-13-av-32I think I’ll call “Mellow Yellow” Cembalo Rock. I guess that makes “Gryningsland” cembalo rock without any rocks.

Although ‘Budapest’ sure has some rock sensibility deep inside, doesn’t it?
You say you’re a simple, roving person traveling with only your backpack and big words. Always on the run. You say I’m brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong. You say we only exist on this earth for a little while, yet nothing you said was true. But we will always have our Budapest.

1-12-av-32And as far as I remember, Vikings didn’t have the ‘Instagram’.
I sold myself cheap and paid a high price. But you don’t own me. You have to move, there is no room for my words. You’re last in line, we are no longer in use.

Folk’Avant’s music is all original, written by the three lovely young ladies themselves. Brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong.

Swedish Anna Rubinsztein still plays classical violin alongside her traditional fiddle.
Swedish Anna Wikenius comes from the worlds of contemporary a cappella and jazz.
Finnish Maija Kauhanen plays pop music when she’s not weaving enchanting tapestries on the concert kantele.
The what??

KanteleThe kantele is a Finnish folk instrument that starts with a 5-string zither-ish thingie and works its way up to a 38- (or 39- or 40-, depending on which version you believe) stringed instrument which is held on the lap and plucked with both hands, like a harp (its first cousin once removed), except when you use the left hand on the stops to dampen the tintinnabulation. Gosh, I love using that word.

The girls say there are classical influences in the seriousness with which they approach the material and the focus on structural details.
They say there’s a big difference in the the melody/beat connection in Finland as opposed to Sweden. “In Sweden we stretch the melody a lot, while in Finland you play quite straight on the beat. That’s been very interesting in Folk’Avant.” Full disclosure: that kind of talk really gives me a very certain kind of thrill.

09-06-2017 11-02-32For us non-Nords, the border between Sweden and Finland ain’t always clear. But for them: “Of course traditionally folk music has had a function. The music has been used in every aspect of life– weddings, parties, funerals, calling in the cows, lullabies and so on. In Sweden the tradition of dancing has lived on and there’s dancing at almost every folk music event. That’s not the case in Finland, where the dancing is usually only on stage on different special occasions!”

I’ve written in the past about Nordic roots music and about my ever-growing fascination with all things Scandinavian, especially Nordic Noir TV mini-series, the best stuff on camera in the world today. Best known are The Killing and The Bridge (the originals, not the US or European remakes). Typically, a damaged female detective and her male partner (who has lost his wife and is trying to raise a trouble-prone teenaged daughter while the bodies are dropping like prehistoric flies by the hand of a deranged perp).

MG_3754That’s the convention, the default premise. But you also get glorious landscapes, the best cinematography and set design and production values in the world, searing human interactions, and a real insight into the most highly evolved sense of womanhood and ecological responsibility in the world. The style has spread around the world: Iceland (Trapped) Belfast (The Fall), rural New Zealand (Top of the Lake), Dorset (Broadchurch), even the Louisiana Bayou (True Detective).

Some of the best of the breed – especially the second Swedish Wallander and my personal quirky favorite Annika Bengtzon – I’ve watched 3 or 4 times over the last couple of years. If you’re satisfied with House of Cards and Walking Dead, I wish you well. My wife, who is not an effete snob like her husband, recently said, “Jeff, you’ve spoiled me. I just can’t watch American TV anymore. It just can’t hold a candle to that dark Scandinavian stuff.” Nicest thing she’s said to me in many a decade.

FE1jpgI’ve read 6 of the series of 10 Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’m in the middle of “The Long Ships”, a 1944 picaresque Viking novel by a Swedish professor of old literary forms, a adventure story the likes of which I haven’t read since I was 15.

I’ve organized myself a whole playlist of the new old Nordic music, with the kanteles and the accordions and the hurdy gurdies and the beautiful blonde singers. It’s going to keep me cool all summer. Check this. Or this. Or this.

What’s the connection between Folk’Avant and all these serial murder TV series and novels? Well, it’s got all that modern Scandinavian sense of style and panache and sophistication, and roots as deep as an eternal, enchanted forest. I don’t pretend to understand it. Hell, I don’t even have the letters on my keyboard. But I’m perfectly contented to settle for being enthralled.

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