Friday, April 15, 2011

Jenny Hval - Viscera (2011) REVIEW

Norway has a long tradition of exceptional female singers, from the folkiest Mari Boine to the most radical noise maker Maja Ratkje through voice artist Sidsel Endresen or energetic rock lady Ida Maria or emotional and personal fav Susanna K. Wallumrød or Jan Garbarek's daughter Anja or... I don't forget the rest of them, except the ones I still don't know about, but there are too many to namedrop any more further. Jenny Hval can be without any doubt added to that already long list. She's however no newbie, Jenny Hval already made some waves in Norway and beyond with two very descent if unbalanced albums "To Sing You Apple Trees" (2006) and "Medea" (2008) with one woman band Rockettothesky (no spelling mistakes). Both albums were released by Trust Me Records, the new and third album "Viscera", under her own name, has been issued by the excellent Norwegian record label Rune Grammofon.

"Viscera" goes even further into the musical, vocal and textural experimentations initiated with the very first "To Sing You Apple Trees" and further expanded with the second "Medea". Where the later could sometimes be a little offputting for its mannered and sometimes contrived eccentricities, this last album sounds far more spontaneous and organic musically while Jenny Hval's voice has gained even more depth, suppleness and her emotional range is simply astounding, she became a fabulous actress for her own somewhat doomed theatrical songs.

For this album, Jenny Hval wanted to "make free music, without a conceptual framework." (1) This statement goes for the music and for the lyrics. Through her musical career, she has increasingly collaborated with free improv musicians, touring with two of them (they've all been invited earlier this year to Norwegian Festival for Improvised Music in Australia where they've been joined by the incredible Dutch pianist and electronic wizard Cor Fuhler) and she's involved in "meshes of voice", a piece composed especially for Ladyfest Oslo by her and Susanna K. Wallumrød, an exploration of both melodic and noise material mostly based on improvisation. These musical experiences inspired her for the writing and recording of "Viscera". Jenny Hval is also a writer, she published several short pieces and a novel called "perlebryggeriet", which means "The Pearl Brewery", in 2009. Jenny explains that the book "starts out as a novel and ends up as song lyrics." (1) The lyrics on "Viscera" are also partly improvised, Jenny Hval followed her intuition and feeling, and like she says she "realised after recording the album that all the songs deal with travelling in one way or another." Jenny Hval lives between Oslo and Melbourne. She adds : "Going back through my notes when writing the songs and improvising, I remember that I was working with different themes that have later been pushed aside. At the very beginning, I was influenced by the harsh, repetitive and pornographic language of Elfriede Jelinek and Pauline Reage, and then at some stage the focus shifted completely to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando." Later on, she concludes : "The music for Viscera was composed and arranged by improvising. It follows my lyrics wherever they go: spoken word, surrealist imagery, or just sound. Modernist fantasy? Fantastic anatomy?"
Anatomy indeed. This album could seem very cerebral at first look, but it's title is "Viscera", which means guts, limbs, organs. Jenny Hval's vocabulary can be pretty explicit, the very first verses opening the album go this way : "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris" on "Engines in the City", further words like limbs, lips, tongues, lungs, erections, bones, ears, fingernails, egg,...  appears, and clitoris again, on the second song "Blood Flight" : "The clitoris, that great sphynx, opened its eye : so many blind years, acting Oedipus."

"Viscera" is basically a folk album and Jenny Hval is a folk singer/songwriter but it has more to share with spiritual jazz, a bit like Tim Buckley's "Starsailor" was some kind of a tribute to John Coltrane's latest and freer period. The instrumentation is generally sparse, almost bare, some percussion, some keys, some guitars, mostly acoustic, some bowed strings and Jenny's vocals, sometimes high priestess, sometimes little girl, here tormented poetess, there torn apart/inside out woman, each notes regularly played so slowly you wonder when the next one will fall and it just falls right on time, like on one of the many heavenly jewels "How Gentle". Three simple acoustic guitar notes repeated for three minutes before it goes gently rondo and the percussion rolls sweetly but deeply, a whole change of mood, Jenny's voice is getting tenser, more urgent then she's calming down until the next ride, a different one, at the same time more serene and more orchestral : layers of acoustic guitars enter the scene, the drums keep a slow but steady beat, cymbals thundering, Jenny Hval's vocals are more confident, she seem like riding on top of this lush sonic wave. The other absolute diamonds are "Golden Locks", "Blood Flight" and the eight minutes drony "This is a Thirst", maybe the most experimental track, some feminine version of Scott Walker's. On this later song, Jenny often sings at her highest register, sometimes making just sounds, like a bird, or a fairy, or repeating little stubbornly "honey dew, honey dew" : this song is supernatural, unearthly. "Blood Flight" enters with a humming electric guitar upon which Jenny enters slightly Laurie Anderson/Annette Peacock-like parlando "I carefully rearranged  my senses so they could have a conversation" then further "And fingerprints filled the eye sockets", a low stumping bass drum appears right when she pronounce the word "sockets" to go all through the song in a very hypnotizing way. Jenny's vocals are increasingly audio-virused (Helge Sten aka Deathprod from Supersilent produced) giving a light psychedelic flavour to the song. The acoustic guitar circles, obsessive, and Jenny goes "aAaaa aAaaa" to get back to the poem, singing then speaking, while the texture thickens, guitar layers are added to some climax until the slower and slower decrescendo. A compelling and innovative song, very spiritual. Another electric guitar hum introduces "Golden Locks" quickly accompanied by another obsessive acoustic guitar rondo, little faster and Jenny Hval sings right on beautifully, almost whispering "The waste product of the body : hair and fingernails". Soft bass drum appears, delicate tom toms, Jenny's still like floating. Bowed double bass, electric guitars zithers in the background, coupled with violin buzzing around and the circular acoustic guitar emerges, leaving everything behind except Jenny in its most emotive moment singing "Golden showers on a sea of..." repeated several time, more and more hesitating till the song ends. The most moving song with "How Gentle".

Unfortunately, two songs doesn't stand out at all, quite the opposite. "Portrait of the young girl as an artist", despite the intriguing first spoken verse "Not all limbs have erections" and a fine and long musical introduction with electronic sound and heavy percussion, is a complete disappointment. Suddenly, 2:20 minute in the song, bass and electric guitars burst into the speakers like some tired grunge band, or worse Cranberries, Jenny's voice drowns in the muddy mix (maybe Helge Sten was out on business that day). It ends up with a long organ and noisy guitars drone with Jenny trying to catch some breath and one really wonder what was it all about and further what the hell is this fat-finger pachydermic thing doing on that otherwise so exquisitely refined album? "Milk of Marrow" is the other deception. Jenny Hval is at her folkiest vocally, her most Sinead O'Connor as well unfortunately, and the song melody is more than mediocre. With such ambition for an album, one can easily fall into complete arty-farty pretentious self-indulgence, "Milk of Marrow" is one such example. The static noise added at the end of the track just adds to the general annoyment.

These two long tracks completely weakens the exceptional beauty of this album, and it's a pity because this thing could have been a real masterpiece. Anyways, seven more than excellent songs remains, enough to make it a forty minutes exceptional album on its own. These seven tracks worth the purchase of this record without a shadow of a doubt, these are songs to listen to over and over and over, they are pure beauties.

7.5 out of 10


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