The first time I listened through Blood from a Stone, the third full-length album by Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg, my headphones were dying and buzzing with some ear-tickling ferocity. For a good twenty minutes, I was almost convinced the vibrations were just part of the music, another one of Hukkelberg’s sonic experiments. After I adjusted the settings on my headphones, it was a relief to hear clarity in the vocals and arrangements, but that strange first impression had temporarily provided an interesting lens through which to view this collection of surreal, and sometimes disturbing, compositions.
The new album, in some ways, is a far cry from the crisp intimacy of 2006’s Rykestrasse 68; the jazzy quiver in Hukkelberg’s voice is mostly gone, replaced by a direct certainty, and so is the airy looseness of the songs. She’s still up to her old trick of using unconventional instruments for percussion, but there’s nothing here as obvious as the purring cats, street noise, or clacking typewriters of Rykestrasse 68. The pieces on Blood from a Stone, with their juxtapositions between organic sounds and dark tones, remind me strongly of Denmark’s Under Byen, but Hukkelberg’s songs are a lot more linear and tuneful by comparison. (Side note: I’m often compelled toward Scandinavian music, like a magpie to shiny things.)
This latest record contains a couple songs (the nearly radio-ready title track, and “In Here/Out There”) that are as close to pure pop as anything Hukkelberg’s written in recent memory, but she always throws a wrench in the proceedings to keep things from getting too harmonious; something’s off-key, or the beat lags ever-so-slightly behind. The lazy interplay of bass and the muffled thumping on “Seventeen” (a dark horse candidate for favorite song here) creeps under the skin as the song slowly builds to a surprisingly melodic finish. A small handful of songs, including “No Mascara Tears” and “No One But Yourself” get lost in melodies that have nightmarish twists and turns. “Salt of the Earth,” in particular, tends to meander through some sinister “movements” without ever gaining foothold. Truth is, the album never quite wakes up from the bad dream, and it leaves us with a lingering feeling of unease in the closer, “Bygd Til By” the record’s only Norwegian-language song. The slow space jam perfectly mirrors the album cover: a picture of a woman in a glass bubble, holding a glowing orb against a landscape that’s half-alien and half-familiar. It’s often the familiar parts that are the most unsettling.
Purchase the CD at Insound
Under Byen — Samme Stof Som Stof
I encountered this interesting band from Denmark while lurking over at the Mew forum, as I like to do sometimes. Most Scandinavian artists choose to sing in English these days for better marketability, but Under Byen is a rare band that prefers their native Danish. The music is moody and fractured, the songs lack hooks and, sometimes, a clear melody, but the dark experimentalism feels organic; most of the percussion instruments sound suspiciously like kitchenware — the clink of spoons, rattle of a baking sheet interplay with frenzied cellos. The singer purrs, sounding an awful lot like Bjork in one of her Icelandic fits. I suspect there’s a more subtle drama at work that I’m missing because of the language barrier, but the sensuality in the strange sounds and, more importantly, in the spaces between sounds, reveals itself after repeat listens.
Download: Under Byen — Af Samme Stof Som Stof (You can find the rest of the album on iTunes)
Michael Penn — MP4
Penn isn’t quite as well-known as his wife Aimee Mann, but he’s been a solo artist for a few years longer and has established himself as a well-respected pop craftsman. Musically, he treads some ground that would be familiar to anyone who knows Mann’s aesthetic (or really, any artist in Jon Brion‘s orbit), except that he’s slightly more cerebral, with lyrics that can be frustratingly opaque yet simple as nursery rhymes. MP4 was released in 2000, the same year as Mann’s excellent Bachelor No. 2, and while it’s not necessarily Penn’s strongest effort, the record arrived at a time when the couple was at a creative peak of synchronicity (he sings backup for her, she sings backup for him). Penn’s music should be required listening for anyone who likes Aimee Mann and wants more of that dry, intelligent chamber pop.
Actually, I just found this kickass video from Penn’s 1997 album Resigned, which was apparently directed by P.T. Anderson (and yes, Michael is brother to Sean. Michael’s better looking).
April March is an interesting case: real name Elinor Blake, former animator for the Ren and Stimpy Show, she takes on the persona of a French ingenue in her bouncy, 60s go-go inspired music. Her uneven catalogue is filled with cutesy, girly numbers made for Francophiles who’ve listened to way too much Serge Gainsbourg, but there’s an unselfconscious glee in the music that can be very infectious. I can’t really recommend one album; Chick Habit is one of the strongest with the recognizable title track, an English re-creation of Gainsbourg’s “Laisse Tomber les Filles,” which is also covered here in the original French. “Chick Habit” has been featured in a couple of off-beat movies, namely But I’m a Cheerleader and Tarantino’s Death Proof. Another highlight in April March’s discography is April March and Los Cincos, a collaborative effort that takes the listener on a nostalgic romp through a wintry landscape. She’s also super adorable.