Most reviews you’ll read of this record will draw a comparison between Bjork and Norway’s Hanne Hukkelberg. On the surface, the assessment is valid. Both singers are blessed with immediately identifiable, heavily accented voices and both have a wonderfully skewed take on modern pop. However, how they approach songwriting couldn’t be more different. The albums that Bjork creates exist in a world that is entirely and uniquely hers. Over the course of five albums, this world has become increasingly insular and personal, and last year’s Medulla, she brought the listener right into her own voice box. Hukkelberg’s debut on other hand exists in this world. While the sentiments are personal, musically it embraces the wide world, and invites the listener on a journey to the newly discovered, unexplored spaces that seem tangibly within reach.
The first thing that will strike listeners is Hukkelberg’s voice. With a highly tuned, child-like delivery, Hukkelberg recalls current neo-folk favorite Joanna Newsom. Thankfully, unlike Newsom’s voice that sounds like it would crack under the slightest pressure, Hukkelberg’s preciousness is deceptive. Her voice is remarkably strong, and flexes its muscle especially when pushed by the forward thinking playing of her band. And these guys are no slouches. Comprised of members from some of Norway’s most celebrated acts including Jaga Jazzist, Kaada and Shining, they frame Hukkelberg’s songs with a fresh take on some of Western music’s oldest genres. Employing a variety of instrumentation ranging from the traditional (glockenspiel, saxophone) to the unconventional (bicycle spokes, wineglasses), the group’s interpretation of jazz motifs and folk structures is at once both shambling and highly organized.
Little Things literally sets sail with the brief introductory track “Hoist Anchor”. Awash in burbling electronics, and creaking floorboards, the brief instrumental sounds like someone stepping into a boat and pushing off of the docks. The track leads right into the first song proper, “Searching”. Here the electronics bubble and subtly rise to a softly orchestrated pitch as Hukkleberg’s simple, plaintive longing for a partner chills with its honesty. It doesn’t take long for the band to start making their presence known, and the next track “Little Girl”, is a cartoon romp, led by the kind of off-the-cuff performance that can only be described as something you might imagine written by a drunken Jon Brion. Real pots and pans clatter, while a banjo from the Appalachians and a tuba lost on the way to the concert hall, pick up Hukkelberg and send her swinging down 1930s Broadway. It’s an American show tune by way of Europe and it’s simply enchanting. Evidence of the flexibility of Hukkelberg’s voice is affirmed by “Do Not As I Do”. A fairly standard pop tune becomes breathtaking as Hukkelberg takes a ferocious stab at jazz style delivery in the song’s chorus, with a delightful run of “Do do do do do dos” that are simply sublime.
Indeed, that Little Things references so many musical idioms, yet retains a uniquely singular sound is remarkable. For example, “Cast Anchor” paints this simple ditty about traveling with astonishingly authentic strokes of Hawaiian guitar. Or take “Displaced” that closes out with a charming section of marching band jazz pulled right from the streets of New Orleans. Somewhere Tom Waits is looking under the sofa cushions to find out where his band disappeared. Yet despite all the musical indexing, producer Kare Christoffer keeps Hukkelberg’s voice front and center, while the band never revert to straight appropriation, instead leaving their own unique thumbprint on the material. The performances are blessed with a slacker-like approach. This isn’t the sound of a band that has rehearsed for years, but of a smoky bar on a tropical island coast, where a few musicians have gathered in the wee hours of the morning for an improptu performance. There is as much commotion as composition, keeping the album fresh and lively, but never chaotic. Yet, no matter where the music is going, the listener can gladly hitch a ride with Hukkelberg. Acting as explorer, guide and captain, Hukkelberg relishes her role as the disc’s centerpiece, delighting in discovery and impressing with a grasp of the musical territory that is covered.
Hanne Hukkelberg has delivered the kind of debut that heralds the arrival of a major new talent. Artistically confident and musically accomplished it presents hints of the familiar in entirely new trappings. This isn’t the sound of an ingénue finding her voice, but an artist who has arrived fully matured, with a clear vision and impeccable execution. Listeners will delight at immersing themselves in a musical world they thought they knew, savoring its many surprises and taking pleasure in uncovering its hidden layers. In short, Little Things is a big deal.