The nicest cities and towns are the ones that are comfortably nestled in their own part of the world, and not just another place you encounter while on the way to another center. To see Oslo, Norway, you have to want to go to Oslo. Unlike other major European cities like Amsterdam or Frankfurt, where many of us North Americans claim we’ve “visited” while sprinting to our next connecting flight, you’ve got to make a concerted effort to visit anywhere in Scandinavia. It can be a grueling trip (16 hours for this Western Canadian), but it’s always, always worth the jet lag.
With a population of about half a million and surrounded by gently sloping, forested mountainsides to the north and the water to the south, Oslo isn’t hampered by the kind of environment-killing urban sprawl that most major cites experience, yet for all its coziness, it’s a remarkably cosmopolitan city, boasting a surprisingly lively nightlife, old architecture and museums, not to mention plenty of high-end shopping and dining, but unlike the more populous, crowded centers to the south, there’s a complete lack of pretension to Oslo, a place where the people are genuinely friendly, dogs happily ride the metro line (known as the “T-Bane”) with their owners, everyone seems to cross-country ski, and even the drunk dudes in nightclubs are exceedingly courteous.
Exhausted and fresh off the Flytoget bullet train from Gardermoen Airport, yours truly found himself thrown into this charming maelstrom of hustle, bustle, and disarming friendliness, suitcase wheels thunk-a-thunk-ing on the cobblestoned pedestrian streets, off to check in at by:Larm, the annual smorgasbord of Scandinavian indie pop. Although it’s the biggest music conference of its kind in Northern Europe, it’s thankfully nowhere near as chaotic as Austin’s wildly overblown South By Southwest, yet at the same time, the 2008 roster was so jam-packed with artists, that it would be impossible to see even a quarter of those performances.
As I found out over the next three days, however, despite huge crowds in every venue, it was incredibly easy to get around and into shows, long lineups minimal to non-existent, the clubs and theaters all situated within a five to ten minute walk from each other. The efficiency of the entire event was something to behold, every set starting exactly on time, nothing running late, allowing punters to dash from club to club, and once we got in, the sound quality was always impeccable. Coupled with some absolutely gorgeous weather for February (a comfortably crisp 45 degrees), it was the most enjoyable, best-run music event yours truly has ever attended.
Of course, though, by:Larm would not have succeeded without its standout performers, of which there was no shortage this year. Starting with Lykke Li’s heavily-hyped performance of the festival on Thursday, February 21st, and concluding with Super Family’s raucous, highly surreal set two nights later, the music I took in ran the proverbial gamut. Mercifully, the good far outweighed the bad.
The buzz surrounding 21-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li Zachrisson had been steadily growing since late last year, first on the music blogs, then with the disarmingly pretty single “Little Bit” and its plucky follow-up “I’m Good, I’m Gone”, then with a bathroom performance that became a minor YouTube hit, culminating with the release of the debut full-length Youth Novels (produced by Björn Yttling of Peter Björn & John), which subsequently debuted in the top five in Sweden. Carrying the same indie “poptimist” appeal as fellow Swedish songstress Robyn, Lykke Li’s music casts a much broader net, as evidenced on the album, with its tendency towards acoustic instrumentation, quirky arrangements that hint at a bit of a Tom Waits influence, and even a couple of spoken word tracks. At times the brazenly diverse album feels like it might bite off more than it can chew at any minute, but her personality makes even the slight mis-steps very likeable. The only question among those crammed into the cozy Bla nightclub was whether or not the charm of the album could carry over in a live setting.
Oh, does it ever. Nattily clad in black, and sporting everything from bells to a kazoo around her neck, and supported by an ace three-piece backing band, Lykke Li, whimsically sashayed her way onstage during the opening notes of “Dance Dance Dance” and proceeded to deliver a knockout performance. The light reggae-meets-funk of “Let It Fall” shimmered, the ballad “Hanging High” cranked up the emotional intensity, while “Breaking It Up” was transformed into a rousing club rave-up. All the while, Lykke Li was all over the stage, exuding the innocence of a girl playing pop star in front of a mirror with a hairbrush, but also brimming with the confidence of a seasoned performer, making eye contact with as many people in the crowd as she could. Capping off the set with a boisterous rendition of “I’m Good, I’m Gone”, which was preceded by a fun, brief cover of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”, by the end Lykke Li’s status as by:Larm’s It Girl had been cemented. She’s a star in the making, and her stature will only grow once she hits North American shores this spring. [MySpace]
Lykke Li - I’m Good, I’m Gone
A veteran of by:Larm, expectations surrounding Nesna, Norway native Ida Maria’s third festival appearance in three years were huge. With the perpetually slavering UK press recently hopping on a bandwagon that seems to be getting more crowded with every passing month, this without an actual album to shill (it’s due out later this year), the energetic indie darling returned to her home country a local hero, the Sentrum Scene theater packed with fans, press, and industry reps, and true to form, she and her band put on a rollicking show of simple, no-frills, hard-driving garage rock, new song “Drive Away My Heart” warmly received, but the most euphoric reactions saved for the trifecta of fan faves “Better When You’re Naked”, “Louie”, and sassy single “Oh My God”. Ever the manic performer, Ida Maria was a little tornado onstage, leaving a path of destruction in her wake. Not surprisingly, she was the deserving winner of the fest’s 20,000 dollar grant. [MySpace]
Ida Maria - Oh My God
The Finnish-born, Sweden-based Järvinen had both critics and audiences swooning with the release of her solo debut Jag Fick Feeling last year. With the help of none other than retro rock greats Dungen, the delicate-voiced Järvinen created a sumptuous combination of roots rock and 1970s AM radio pop, her lilting Swedish lyrics transcending any language barrier thanks to her tender, soulful delivery. Onstage at the large VG Teltet, Järvinen was a study in contrasts; while performing, she was an emotional powerhouse, gesticulating passionately while singing her heart out, but once the music stopped, she smiled shyly, almost apologetically, as if slightly embarrassed at having opened up so much, which in turn made her performance all the more endearing. [MySpace]
Anna Järvinen - Götgatan
Being one of the world’s leading exporters of cutting-edge metal music, by:Larm’s lack of stalwart indie acts was a bit surprising, but thank goodness for Sahg, who tore up the Rockefeller Annex with their dead-on homage to old-school heavy metal. Part mid-‘70s Sabbath, part UK doomsters Witchfinder General, Sahg trounce their trendier, American retro-doom peers in the Sword and Saviours, thanks to singer/guitarist Olav Iversen, who brings the kind of vocal range that the sound demands, a concept so few American bands are able to grasp. Churning out tracks like the towering “Godless Faith” and new song “Ascent to Decadence” (from the forthcoming Sahg II), it was a well-timed respite from the festival’s more sedate fare. [MySpace]
Sahg - Godless Faith
Wildly eclectic, veering from the clinical precision of early ‘80s King Crimson to the murky, soulful jazz fusion of early ‘70s Miles Davis, to the eclectic nature of Frank Zappa’s work, to the modern math metal and noisecore of the Dillinger Escape Plan and Botch, Norway’s Shining (not to be confused with the Swedish black metalers of the same name) made heads turn last year with their astounding fourth album Grindstone, but for all of that album’s achievements, nothing could prepare yours truly for the scorching performance the five-piece band had in store. Led by multi-instrumentalist Jørgen Munkeby and new guitarist Even Helte Hermansen, the quintet launched into a seemingly non-stop set that focused on the band’s more aggressive fare, Munkeby manically switching from saxophone, clarinet, and guitar while his mates sounded far more powerful than they ever did on record. Progressive rock doesn’t get more exhilarating than this. [MySpace]
Shining - Goretex Weather Report