Susanna and the Magical Orchestra

Melody Mountain

(Rune Grammofon; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 22 September 2006

Music whispy enough to be a silk sheet billowing in the wind; music strong enough to be pulled tight around a body; when the thread count reaches the premium that it does on Melody Mountain, pull those covers tight. Susanna Wallumrød and Morten Qvenild (the entirety of the Magical Orchestra) present these covers with aplomb, a word I barely know the meaning of but still one that seems to capture a rare quality that works both in concept and execution, and an impressive one too, because seriously? What was to stop this project from retreading the weary ground gutted by Nouvelle Vague’s gimmicky-and-ultimately-silly bossa nova covers of new wave? The answer, I think, lies in the sincerity with which SatMO approach schlock like AC/DC and Kiss, because if the dispensable hilarity of girls singing “boy’s” songs like “Too Drunk to Fuck” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is complicated by the obviously apolitical (or maybe de-political) Vague project (not to mention the phoned-in performances that I think are supposed to somehow replicate the bored detachment of hiply revisioned New Wave and the fact that, regardless, it’s boys at the pin-up control board), Wallumrød and Qvenild manage to eat that same Joy Division classic for breakfast, like it’s no big deal, but how can anybody do that? This is the song that marks the cusp where all our modernist souls perch, right?

Because don’t call this shit fragile. Qvenild’s music maybe, a collection of creature synths simply hiding in the underbrush, knowing how to get out of the way and rustle nervously and perfectly around Wallumrød’s voice, but that latter is a diamond bit drilling its way through sound and space to inscribe intricate designs on your sweating forehead. This stuff is difficult and glorious to listen to precisely because Wallumrød acts like it matters a lot, in the same way that Nina Simone would take just about anything in the ‘60s and ‘70s and reinterpret it as the most harrowingly personal tune ever. Emergency Ward (1972) is a lot of fun, yes, but watch how Simone transforms Harrison’s tunes into the most immediate and driven odes ever—that’s the kind of energy we’re talking about here, as SatMO exploits the thin quivers of Wallumrød’s voice into narrow and specific deliberations on humanity, breathing new life into songs that were already fully inflated. A different kind of breath, I guess, and that’s what a covers album should be, right? And yes, we did need another cover of “Hallelujah.”

Cohen’s wordplay and Buckley’s ghost start the album, Wallumrød ignoring melody during the part about music, instead actually singing the notes (“the fourth / the fifth”) and phrases (“the minor fall / the major lift”) of the structures originally described, opening her larynx to emit straight-edge noise right until the part where the addressed “you” gets tied to a chair. And then the familiar melody is latched onto, Wallumrød proving that if Buckley made this track sad and sexy and epic there are still devils and skeletons to be yanked from its closet. Don’t get me wrong, Buckley’s is an always will be the definitive and devastating version, but SatMO’s rendition comes closer to what “devastating” actually means, milking the feint and very personal apocalypse so urgently cooed by Cohen into a quiet, contained, and visceral spine shiver that will crumble each of your lumbar to dust as you try to become erect again during the fading notes of the track. And the tremors—turn this thing inside out and it might explode the world. Which hopefully means it won’t get played over the news of Fox canceling The O.C..

Qvenild grabs a cembalo (sounds like a harpsicord) to open up “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” Wallumrød replacing Bon Scott’s fissures with a detached smirk that fades into the crevices of her orchestra’s synth flourishes on the hook. Taking such a dumb-puss festival of a typical ‘70s rock tune to this haunting place is a fantastic way to show both what is awesome and awful about its ilk, and to allow them to reinforce one another. Paul Stanley’s “Crazy, Crazy Nights” is treated in similar fashion, lines like “this is my music / it makes me proud / these are my people / this is my crowd” gurgitated over Mary Margaret O’Hara-eqsue delayed bass and synth flourishes are butter as Wallumrød richochets through her range. The ludicrous contrasts are probably worth a couple of giggles, admittedly, but generally SatMO is able to maintain the sweet tone that deflates the machismo of the original into a song about entire communities. Dylan’s unmeasured meters are crucified with stop-gaps, his acoustic replaced with a plunking piano line and flitting processed sounds (I think reeds) in the back. Wallumrød descends on the “it’s all right” at the end of each verse, substituting the ragged anger of the original with a resigned acceptance of the shelf-life of relationships.

“These Days” is the most obscure track here; I haven’t heard Matt Burt’s original, but the track allows Qvenild a chance to really play with orchestration, adding magnificent and sporadic accents to a simple piano line and Wallumrød sings with such hollow sadness that her measures often don’t line up. This is resignation in song, beautifully crafted. The Prince cover is so good that the first time I listened through (without the case in hand) I didn’t even recognize the track. Low strings bolster the piano line as Wallumrød gives her most optimistic vocal performance on one of these least hopeful songs. Especially since “Love Will Tear Us Apart” follows, all reverbed melodica and heavily accented rhymes courtesy of Wallumrød’s close-miced vocals. The haunting energy of the original is transformed into an actual love song, replacing the kind-of horror with a meditated deliberation. Several of Wallumrød’s crystal clear notes seem to have internal melodies as she expertly plays with enunciation and vibrato.

But nothing on the album reaches the desolation of the Scott Walker cover. “It’s Raining Today,” a relatively upbeat track in the Walker catalogue, is here reframed as a vocal piece supported mostly by what sounds like the resonance of Wallumrød’s vocals and a couple of stray synth notes. In a weird way, this is what the track might have sounded like if it had been recorded by Walker himself for Tilt (1995) or The Drift (2006), excepting the fact that Wallumrød manages to smooth out the inimitable cadences in his voice, allowing her own delivery to fluctuate between hard consonants and half-spoken asides.

The Depeche Mode and Fairport Convention covers that end the album are both excellent, but don’t necessarily cover ground the album hasn’t already explored, and ultimately that is Melody Mountain’s biggest limitation: it’s an album of covers, and while they are deftly executed and fascinatingly rearticulated, SatMO tends to take all of them to a similar, dismal place. It’s a beautiful one, make no mistake, but whether or not you want to continually spend time there will ultimately depend on your temperament.