Friday, 21 February 2014

Ulvsand & Hjetland

Ulvsand & Hjetland

Ulvsand & Hjetland

Plenty of plucked strings here – autoharp, ukulele and bouzouki – and vocals on this debut from the pair. It’s a very spare collection, with the light, judicious use of loops to fill things out here and here. Ulvsand is a wonderful bouzouki player, eloquent with his instrument, while Hjetland’s lovely voice works ideally with his. The closer, “Ajo,” is a joy, oddly reminiscent of a ‘70s Joni Mitchell songs, layers of vocals, and the uke with bouzouki. Gorgeous.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Dreamers' Circus - A Little Symphony

The second release from Danish trio Dreamers’ Circus (after their debut EP)finds them in ambitious, expansive form and employing a string quartet and a 13-piece brass section to bring Technicolor to their compositions. A Little Symphony might not be a completely apt name, but it does make very strong connections between Nordic folk music and contemporary classical. When the horns kick in, for instance, it stirs the heart in the same way hearing Atom Heart Mother for the first time did. There’s a similar grandeur in the arrangements (by band member Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen), and the swell really does enhance the music; it’s far more than effect, it’s an important part of the piece. The band members have different styles. Keyboard player Nikolaj Busk favours more romantic flourishes that work well with the strings, while guitarist Ale Carr seems ground in a more contemporary Nordic folk style, although when he has his moment in the spotlight, he shows just how good an instrumentalist he is. The band has performed with a symphony orchestra in Denmark, a mark of where the performers are heading with their music. And the fact is, they’ve created one of the most satisfying folk/’/classical’ fusions to date. It’s largely unknown territory, but having musicians versed in both disciplines gives a good start. Considering this is still early days, the possibilities are wonderful.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Helene Blum – Men Med Åbne Øjne

I’d been waiting and hoping for some 2013 album to come along and hit that sweet spot. You know, a disc that makes you think that yes, there’s something truly special going on here. I had high hopes for this,Helene Blum’s fourth record and it doesn’t disappoint. It satisfies the parts most albums can’t reach.

I’ve been a fan of her voice ever since I first heard her sing at the Tønder Festival in 2003, and Solen, the duo disc she did with Karen Mose (one of the other major young Danish singing talents) showed that she had a remarkable, translucent quality. She’s grown with each of her solo records – even her Christmas record was a joy – but this truly takes her to a new level. There might be folkies on it and a traditional song (Gådevisen) but this is, at heart, poetry set to music. It takes chances throughout – Læber Åbnes has her over backing of piano and cello that’s arranged in a gloriously spare, unearthly fashion, while the closer is utterly naked, just Blum’s voice, not even double-tracked. It’s a bold way to finish but it works. Throughout, even coalesces around her singing, which has a vulnerable, delicate warmth; you want to reach out and protect her, and you want to listen to her singing all night. Hjertet Ved , which has her singing and playing piano ( the vocal melody reminiscent in part of an early Jackson Browne song) while husband Harald Haugaard offers fiddle backing (and he’s one of the world’s best fiddlers, making them quite the dynamic duo). Like a flower, this opens its joys gradually, but fills the senses. Når Først Vi Har Sagt Farvel sees her duetting with the great Martin Simpson on a song they co-wrote, with Simpson adding acoustic guitar and verses in English; it’s a testament to Blum that she upstages him. Then again, Blum has been a world-class talent for the last several years. This release, at once so personal but also accessible while still pushing at all the possibilities of performance, might see her receiving the due she so richly deserves. With The Killing and Borgen people have become more aware of Denmark and eager for what it offers. People, this is among the very best. And no expensive sweaters needed, just a stereo and an ear for real beauty.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Afenginn - Lux

It’s been a while since Afenginn released a new album – if you discount the re-recording of old favourites for their ‘best of’ collection, Bastard Etno. Since then there have been a few changes, including a new bass player and the sobriety of leader/mandolin player/ composer Kim Rafael Nyberg. That has its inevitable reflection in the music, for the most part calmer and far more melodic, with Nyberg’s mandolin far more prominent than it has been on previous discs. It’s not so much as record of individual tracks, but an extended piece, where one movement segues quite seamlessly into the next, quite orchestral in its scope and ambition – and succeeding. There’s ebb and flow – Hostbar, for instance, builds to a gorgeous peak with Rasmus Krøyer’s clarinet until mandolin arpeggios lead into Höstbvisa 1, with a theme that could almost have come from fin de Siècle with its lulling waltz rhythm. The addition of a few guests adds more texture and colour to the music, but they’re used sparingly, like the trombone and marimba in Septem Turbido – Höstbvisa 2. While not outwardly the band’s most adventurous outing (that was probably Reptilica Polaris with its male voice choir), it’s the most satisfying, with a maturity in the writing and a sense of playing to the strengths of all the members, of developing the themes and creating delicious little variations that thread together with great beauty. Where Afenginn used to have great flippancy, they’ve become more serious, but that’s not a bad thing when faced with something quite demanding. And it’s not all sailing on placid waters. Obscare edges into Stravinsky territory, with lurch rhythms and surprises, with beauty and a hefty stomp, melody and sharp dissonance, moving side by side to a resolution, coming as a stragen, disorienting interlude in the proceedings. Autumnus Elegia lives up to its title, melancholic minor-key piano work from guest Nikolaj Busk in a piece curiously reminiscent of Beethoven without the pomp, then adding gypsy violin, vibes and clarinet to the stew as it morphs into Missa Tripus. It’s an album to delight and astonish, and easily the best of their career, taking them further and further from any pigeonhole? Definitely not Danish, other than most of the musicians, not folk, not jazz, not quite classical. It’s Afenginn music. And, as ever, the packaging is wonderful.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Trias – Trias

Trias seem to be going places very quickly. The young quartet (three fiddles, two doubling on viola, one on piano, and a bassist) had barely released their debut when they scooped the New Talent of 2012 title at the Danish Music Awards. And you know what? On the basis of that album they fully deserve it. It’s one of the most complete and accomplished starts I’ve heard, a band that arrives fully-formed and confident – but never cocky. Right out of the blocks the playing sparkles on Karrusellen, a wonderfully lively piece that allow for ample interplay between the three fiddles. It’s written by one of the band members Jonas Kongsted, who contributes four of the pieces here (the rest, apart from two traditional Danish offerings, come from other members of Trias), and showcases his superb compositional skills (one great melody would be luck – four of them is huge talent). Indeed, master fiddler Harald Haugaard singles him out in the sleeve notes and it’s easy to understand why. His work has that special something to set it apart. But, and it’s an important but, much of the credit goes to the others in Trias for the way they perform everything. There’s a deliciously sinuous quality to the playing; it’s very much alive, jumping out of the speakers when the tempo rises, and almost luminescent on something like Valhal or Vejrmølle Tur. In fact, at times the playing on the slow tunes, in tone at least, is reminiscent of Martin Hayes in the way it illuminates the melody. Truly great bands have a chemisty that comes out on disc, and Trias possesses that. Forget the shiny website, nice CD cover, all the peripheral stuff. It all boils down to the music, and Trias have that magical, elusive, indefinable ‘it’.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Over Sundet – Masquerade

The second album from Over Sundet pretty much picks up the baton from their debut. A four-piece (clarinets, saxes, cello and percussion), they really make Nordic chamber music that has more than a touch of the Balkan/Middle East axis about it (just listen to “Sultanens Dans” for a prime, intricate example, or to “Vægelsind”). The beauty here lies in the arrangements of the music – which is all original – with its strong interplay between the instruments, to the point that it’s often filigreed and quite delicate. It’s music to listen to and absorb, with some exceptional cello work from Lea Havelund Rasmussen underpinning everything (and she also contributes a couple of short, glorious soloes). At times inevitably veering towards classical music, they can also swing like the devil, and are starting to use their singing voices a little more, not only to fill out the sound, but with an actual song (“I Nattens Klare Måneskin”) with Siri Iversen taking a lovely, smoky lead vocal, the others backing her up. It adds more texture and variety to the sound, although they manage that perfectly well just using instruments. And they finish off in perfect style with “Flowing With Yangtze”; no evocation of China but rather a stately tune with medieval overtones.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Harald Haugaard – Den Femste Søster

For the unfamiliar, Harald Haugaard is probably one of the very best fiddlers playing anywhere in the globe today, up in the same league as the glorious Martin Hayes. The Dane started out in Sorten Muld, who were quite possibly the first folktronica band back in the ‘90s, then spent a decade as half of the fiddle/guitar duo of Haugaard & Høirup. Since then he’s been working solo, leading a band that includes his wife, singer Helene Blum. Den Femste Søster sees him moving away from the more prog-like aspects of his solo debut, although in its own way it’s every bit as ambitious. Largely self-composed, there’s plenty of light and shade, and fire to illuminate the more reflective pieces. The title cut roars out of the blocks, sprightly and challenging, then shifting to a darker mood partway through, while the stately march of The King Arrives carries plenty of pomp. The centrepiece here, though, is undoubtedly the string quartet in three movements. It’s very much an ensemble piece and Haugaard pushing and testing himself as a composer. Interestingly, the final movement sounds very much like a folk melody. But given that he has deep roots in traditional Danish folk, that’s not too much of a surprise, and it’s gratifying that he does indulge them a little on this release. Three tracks look back, and Rimmen echoes those old duo days, just fiddle with Roger Tallroth's guitar, stripped down and beautiful, which the totally solo Dødens Vals is pure joy, a masterclass in control and tone. The real pleasure is that on this release Haugaard isn’t out to impress. He sounds happy in his own skin and that comes through in his playing. Yes, he has incredibly fleet fingers, but what really communicates is the enjoyment of the musicians and the way the man handles his instrument, with some complete assurance that there’s the sense of someone doing exactly what he loves. Kudos, too, to the other musicians, who all play with relish, and to Blum’s exquisite vocals on the closing cut.