Annbjørg Lien, Waltz with Me (Grappa, 2008); Unni Løvlid, Rite (Grappa, 2008); Vallkyrien Allstars (Grappa, 2007)

Like the other Scandinavian countries, Norway has an active folk music scene. Its folk musicians benefit from a number of record labels eager to promote and distribute music influenced in some ways by the nation's folk traditions. For example, Grappa includes among its list of acts some of the country's most renowned folk performers, and young performers just starting out. I recently had the opportunity to listen to three new Grappa releases, covering a broad range of performers and styles.

Norway's most distinctive folk instrument is the hardanger fiddle, a fiddle with many supporting strings underneath the main four to provide resonance. Mainstream listeners may have heard the hardanger fiddle in the Lord of the Rings movie series, where it was used to play the Rohan theme. Arguably the most famous of Norway's hardanger fiddle players is Annbjørg Lien, who recently was commissioned to compose a series of pieces for a performance in Telemark, a village steeped in the tradition of hardanger fiddle music. The results were recorded for an album titled Waltz with Me. Wanting a folk equivalent of a string quartet to perform the pieces, Lien recruited Swedish violist Mikael Marin of Väsen, American fiddler/guitarist Bruce Molsky, and Scottish cellist Christine Hanson. Lyrics were written for several of the pieces as well, with Kristen Bråten Berg and Bruce Molsky singing them. Like many of the performers in the genre of New Nordic Folk, Lien composes and arranges her music in ways that combine influences from a number of musical traditions beyond her own. On Waltz with Me, these outside influences include bluegrass, Celtic, Swedish fiddle music, and even some classical to provide a touch of stateliness to the proceedings. The music is obviously eclectic, but also highly personalized, and the performances are predictably first-rate.

Singer Unni Løvlid goes further back in time than the Norwegian fiddling traditions to derive her inspiration. Her musical style would qualify more as a combination of modern classical and New Age than folk, but her lyrics are structured after Medieval religious chants. Her album Rite reminds me a lot of an album I heard a few years back consisting of modernist interpretations of the songs of Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth-century German abbess who added a feminine touch to the spiritual music of her day. Unfortunately the von Bingen album just wasn't all that interesting, and neither is Rite. Most of the songs just plod along with little sign of life, and the electronic touches generally distract from the music more than they enhance it. The only attention-grabbing point on the disc comes on the last track "Portrett," when a heavily distorted storm of synthesizers and strings breaks the calm. It may have been the one moment of catharsis on an otherwise somnolent recording, but even that doesn't save the song from an ineffectively discordant melody. Nor, alas, is it enough to salvage the album.

Vallkyrien Allstars are a trio of young Norwegian hardanger fiddle players. Like Annbjørg Lien, they use the musical traditions of their homeland as a springboard to explore all sorts of different styles. On their self-titled debut CD, they combine traditional Norwegian dances with rock, reggae, and cabaret to produce a wildly eclectic and fun record. Of the three discs I'm reviewing, this one manages to be not only the most directly reflective of Norwegian traditional music, but also the most adventurous. The star of the group is Tuva Livsdatter Syvertsen, whose potent vocals channel the ghosts of both Edith Piaf and Janis Joplin. But she, Ola Hillmen, and Erik Sollid are all excellent fiddlers, and the cast of backing musicians provides solid accompaniment as well. They're the kind of band that would go over phenomenally well at The Nordic Roots Festival, but with the Festival changing formats after this year, they unfortunately might never get the opportunity to show what they've got. (Annbjørg Lien will be bringing her quartet to this year's festival, however.)

Overall grades:
Annbjørg Lien B+
Unni Løvlid C-
Vallkyrien Allstars A-

reviewed by Scott

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2008 The Green Man Review

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