Proportionally speaking, I’m not sure there’s a more prolific hotbed for indie music than Iceland. It’s a volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic with a total population smaller than Cleveland’s, and yet the country’s imprint on the music blogosphere is undeniable. That’s largely due to the monolithic presences of Björk and Sigur Rós, two of the biggest acts in independent music this century.
But there are plenty of other great Icelandic artists working today, and Ólöf Arnalds is one of the finest. She’s got two beautiful full-length LPs to her name—2007’s Við Og Við and last year’s Innundir skinni, both sung mostly in Icelandic—and now, she’s released Ólöf Sings, an all-English EP with the clear purpose of increasing her visibility a bit outside her home country. It’s a quiet marvel that relies mainly on the simple, ethereal beauty of Arnalds’ voice, especially when you consider that most of the material on the EP was written not only by other artists, but specifically by legendary male artists of a bygone era: Bruce Springsteen (“I’m on Fire”), Johnny Cash (“Solitary Man”), and Bob Dylan (“She Belongs to Me”).
The EP is the perfect opportunity for an artist to indulge in this kind of playful experimentation, and while the idea of Arnalds taking on these songs initially sounds like some cute gimmickry, her execution is devoid of camp and entirely on point. She wrings the same genuine, sensual pathos out of “I’m on Fire” as Bruce did, and on “She Belongs to Me”, she sounds as freewheeling as Dylan ever did, even mimicking his vocal pattern a bit to great effect. She also doesn’t change any of the pronouns, meaning that “Solitary Man” still opens with the lyric “Belinda was mine till the time that I found her / Holding Jim / Loving him.” It’s as if we’re still supposed to imagine a man singing these songs, even if they’re being channeled through a gentle, chirpy Icelandic waif.
Nothing on Ólöf Sings ventures too far away from Arnalds’ bread and butter, simple folk ballads with pared-down instrumentation that puts her voice front and center. The other two songs on the EP, “Close My Eyes” and “Maria Bethania”, are also covers—of Arthur Russell and the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, respectively—and these, particularly “Close My Eyes”, fit quite comfortably into Arnalds’ body of work. Unlike her aforementioned Icelandic peers, Arnalds’ music isn’t aggressively weird; it’s immaculate and more than a little melancholy, and her gentle accent complements her lilting voice nicely. Ólöf Sings is, at the very least, a welcome foray for Arnalds into English-language territory, and at its best, it’s the beginning of an exciting new phase in her career.