Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Heart and Soul

Wildbirds and Peacedrums - Heartcore (Leaf, 2007)

The title is such a straightforward and obvious play on words that it seems staggering that it hasn’t been used somewhere before. I’m not sure whether ‘Heartcore’ qualifies as a 2007 or a 2008 release. It initially surfaced last year, but the generally wonderful Leaf label appears to be affording it a second release with wider distribution in April. Enabling more people to hear this quite remarkable duo from Sweden can only be a positive thing. The combination of Mariam Wallentin’s resonant, soulful vocals and the carefully crafted instrumentation of drummer Andreas Werliin inspires awe with consummate ease.

It’s difficult to know how to categorise this group’s fascinating sound. The two have just been named as benefactors of a substantial Swedish jazz award, although few would associate this song-based music with jazz or improvisation, although there are occasional elements of the latter. The group have been described elsewhere as ‘freak folk’ or ‘folktronica’ but those rather restrictive constructions barely even hint at the raw clarity of much of this music.

Some of these tracks are based purely on clattering percussion and Wallentin’s vocals alone. Her voice is so rich in charisma, intensity, personality and power that she simply does not require supporting harmony or instrumental arrangements. For example, the palpable anxiety and tension in ‘Doubt/Hope’ (the lyrics reference nail-biting) comes mainly from the way in which Wallentin’s phrasing and dynamic range interacts with the crisp, attacking percussion. The rhythm here is audacious and intricate, but sometimes it’s left as simple and uncluttered as humanly possible. ‘Nakina’ is remarkable in this respect – just a slow backbeat and Wallentin’s aching and vulnerable singing. It sounds close to Portishead, but completely free from their reliance on sampled sounds. It’s a refreshing and unconventional approach, perhaps indeed drawing inspiration from the most primal and elemental of folk music. It’s certainly not ‘freak folk’ in the cloying hippy-ish manner of Devendra Banhart, or the pretentious faux-medievalism of Circulus. There’s something brutally immediate and overwhelming about this very basic merger of melody and rhythm.

Elsewhere, the vibe is looser and less rigorous, with an emphasis on melodic innovation and extension. On ‘Bird’, Andreas Werliin provides a chattering patter on toms but emphasises expression rather than strict time. This allows Wallentin, appropriately enough, to take flight, frequently resembling a young Patti Smith. The lyrics begin with the line ‘I am a bird now’ and it’s a tempting diversion to ponder whether this is a nod in the direction of Anthony and the Johnsons. Wallentin has a good deal more vocal armoury than Anthony Hegarty, whose tremulous reverb is beginning to suffer from its increasing omnipresence through guest appearances. So different does Wallentin’s voice sound across the tracks on this record that it’s sometimes hard to believe we are listening to the same singer – she is phenomenally expressive and has masterful tonal control.

It would have been interesting enough had the group followed the percussion and vocals template across an entire album, but ‘Heartcore’ reveals that Werliin and Wallentin have plenty more tricks up their sleeve. The clanging sounds on ‘Lost Love’ hint at Gamelan textures, and the lyric conjures up powerful feelings of loneliness and regret (‘on the mountain, I see lots of faces but I only long for yours’). Even better is the sublime ‘I Can’t Tell In His Eyes’ which works largely through leaving plenty of space within its enveloping, serene and hypnotic sound. Werliin’s subtle brush drums perfectly complement the sweet but unpredictable nature of Wallentin’s vocals, and the use of conventional harmonic backing is all the more successful because it is rarely deployed elsewhere.

The duo are also not averse to creating strangely accessible moments. ‘The Way Things Go’ reminds me a little of Matthew Herbert’s work with Dani Sicilliano or Roisin Murphy, although he would be unlikely to rely so heavily on a simple light shuffle beat. There’s plenty here for admirers of The Gossip or other such raw modern takes on soulful, blues-infused rock (particularly for those who admire the stripped down impact of ‘Listen Up’), but there’s a sensitivity and subtlety mostly lacking from more conventional garage rock. In spite of its frequent sparseness, there’s a real dynamic and textural range to the material here. What a superb album this is – one of the most captivating and original records I’ve heard in quite a while.

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