Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Vintage Premonitions

Susanna and the Magical Orchestra - 3 (Rune Grammofon, 2009)

Whilst I’ve written very favourably about Susanna Wallumrod both as a solo artist and in this duo set up with Morten Qvenild, I also argued that her next release would have to offer something different to save her from being caricatured. With ‘3’, she has emerged as a more confident singer and writer, largely jettisoning the austere accompaniments with which her audience will by now be overly familiar. Whilst the pace is still mostly glacial, the settings are fresh. Susanna’s voice is now centre stage, frequently multi-tracked, and surrounded by swathes of dense synthesiser layers.

Where once Wallumrod and Qvenild would have doggedly pursued an unchanging dynamic and mood throughout an entire album, here a single exotic track such as ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ incorporates a variety of textures and moods. This is all achieved without losing a sense of stylistic identity. The music on ‘3’ is still intimate and subtle, but also arguably warmer and with a greater element of surprise. It helps that Qvenild has a notable restraint and a sensitivity to balance. For all the group’s icy Nordic exterior, this is also an emotional work, filled with melancholy laments of considerable power.

Some critics have found Susanna’s po-mo cover versions gimmicky but she has made a major contribution towards re-establishing the art of interpretation (something that looked in danger of being lost to contemporary pop music). Her work is more artful than the tacky, one-dimensional approach of Nouvelle Vague (anyone who makes Kiss’ ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ into something heartbreaking surely deserves respect). Those harshest of critics should be pleased that ‘3’ focuses more on her excellent original writing but will also no doubt gleefully pounce on the wonderful version of Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’ included here. Stripping that song of Rush’s false grandeur, it becomes something of a futuristic Ballardian nightmare – full of foreboding but also tender and bittersweet.

Even better though is her take on a less provocative selection – English folk singer Roy Harper’s ‘Another Day’. This song is hardly in need of an injection of good taste but the English folk idiom occupies a space at some remove from this very produced and arranged fantasia. Wisely, Qvenild reduces the accompaniment to delicate piano lines, allowing Susanna’s resonant but controlled vocal performance the space it demands. In its slow building intensity it reminds me of Kate Bush’s ‘This Woman’s Work’.

Harper’s narrative of relationship regret and lost chances fits well with the prevailing sense of loss that pervades the original songs. There’s the delicate, desolate sadness of ‘Game’ and the languid melancholy of ‘Someday’, the latter strikingly direct. Susanna’s voice, whilst mostly understated, has a piercing clarity and haunting effect.

Even when Qvenild’s arrangements become more sophisticated, as they do on ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ and the gorgeous ‘Deer Eyed Lady’, Susanna’s voice is still the focal point. She harmonises with herself on ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ to mesmeric effect. We’re so used to hearing her voice as a pure, unadorned siren’s call that to hear it in layers makes the whole process of vocal multi-tracking seem novel once again. Perhaps best of all is ‘Recall’ which begins with painful memories but has an unexpected glimmer of hope and brightness at its heart. These new settings add sensuality and depth to Susanna’s performances.

It’s worth noting that Susanna is an unusually prolific artist given the modern album’s usual lengthy gestation period. It was only a few months ago that I was transfixed by her live performance supporting Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in London, and then she was mainly performing songs from last year’s ‘Flower of Evil’. For a while, it looked as if this determination to keep releasing music would result in repetition but ‘3’ marks a bold progression. It’s a retro-futurist gem, its landscape of vintage synths conspiring to create something peculiar and touching.

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