Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos
(Rune Grammofon; 2007)
By Mark Abraham | 1 October 2007
Sparse piano chords and noise undercut Susanna Wallumrød’s gorgeous, crystalline voice, this time out singing all original tracks on her first solo album. Wallumrød’s work with the Magical Orchestra—i.e. Morton Qvenild—was as much about reinterpretation as it was about sound; despite a few originals on their debut album the majority of it and last year’s Melody Mountain featured Wallumrød’s jazz-like gift for finding new nooks and crannies in very familiar songs. Fortunately, Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos shows that Wallamrød’s talent did not simply lie in recreation; her compositions are just as haunting as her revisions.
It’s a slow album, though, Wallumrød’s voice a smooth drop that slithers between her piano and guitar and musical accents from a whole slew of contributors. Wallumrød is measured even when she spices or speeds things up a bit; there’s a real ’70s folk vibe—even if the instrumentation rarely sounds similar—that echoes that timeless, drumless meandering of classic reflective songs. Like she’s singing to herself in a mirror, but it’s also awesome. And beyond the vocals there’s a real interest in the meaning of composition; in basic terms, the vocal melodies are often quite complex, but more intriguing is the way her arrangements frequently slip in incidental chords and motifs that spasm the tone of the track.
For example, “Born in the Desert” hinges on a plaintive funk bass riff that slowly unspools under drawn-out vocal notes. The trick here the way the very mapped bass riffs keep dissolving under the weight of the piano, almost as if they’ve disappeared; just as the song itself is actually quite a sad portrait of a woman rooted in a waterless desert, any sense of restlessness the bass represents dissolves in the more present melancholy of the piano. “People Living” employs a much darker bass riff that Wallumrød could have turned into a psychedelic route; like “Born in the Desert,” though, it’s only a few lines before the song slows down to simple piano and vocals again. And even when the track does get tense Wallumrød measures her delivery, a quiet breeze above a storm. “Demon Dance,” aside from featuring an awesome enunciation of the word “obvious,” features a different iteration of this vaguely jazz/funk bass backing; here Wallumrød almost cracks out a blues track, but like the blues remixed as gospel remixed as contemporary folk. In all three cases the bass is used as an evocative motif.
Elsewhere, there’s far less to do with rhythm. “Hangout,” for example, has lyrics undulating counterintuitively over sparse finger picking. She gives “not” like six syllables in the chorus before dropping the pitch again. “Home Recording” features a lovely guitar line that stutters every so often, the song a bare testament to the vibrant texture of Wallumrød’s voice. It’s incredibly powerful even at its softest, and every quiver shuffles out to fill the spaces between guitar knocks and notes. “Better Days” pairs reverbed guitar and synth strings to beautiful effect, Wallumrød’s vocals somehow thicker than normal as she gets all optimistic with her lyrics. The chorus is filled with tension and edgy guitar subverts her assertion that “better days are coming.”
Lyrically, there’s some beautiful passages but nothing incredibly exciting. Wallumrød’s talent lies in her ability to impart a whole cluster of complicated meanings to simple ideas (something incredibly evident, for example, on her cover of “Crazy, Crazy Nights” from last year); her ability with lyrics is almost beside the point, though it’s worth noting that the words on Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos are nothing to disparage, either. Even if Wallumrød drops the occasional cringe-worthy cliché, her delivery is so entrancing that it’s hard to get worked up about it.
Wallumrød’s very deliberate approach to music will attract certain listeners; the arrangements are quite stark, the pace is incredibly slow, and her voice, while absolutely gorgeous, is often very breathy. But that slow burn radiates off an incredibly evocative artist who—and this is probably the most important aspect of Wallumrød’s work—seems effortlessly sincere about what she’s doing. That’s a whole different kind of beauty unto itself, and rare besides.