If Pre-Raphaelite paintings were Swedish and could sing, I think they would sound like this. The music on Morning Star has that Pre-Raphaelite clarity, the solid light that brings out the brilliance of simple colours, reds and blues, every object shaded with fidelity, with nothing tricky, nothing hidden from you. The vintage of the medieval songs, the courteous ease of the fiddle, the plainness of the flute, the subject matter, all have the air of Pre-Raphaelite Romance, that sexless, high-minded grace. ” Räck mig nu den snövita handen / Om du vill bliva min kära”, sings the sailor in “Sjomansvisen”. Reach out your snow-white hand / If you will be my love. And when, in “Falkvard Lagermansson”, a king executes the charming servant who has become adorable to the queen, she dies of a fairy tale broken heart.
It’s music for a fresh countryside, for green bowers and washed pastures, the cows scrubbed and gleaming, the sheep as clean as clouds, a Ye Olde far-away land that could make you weep because it was never real, or even likely. But no, it’s not completely like that. Ranarim is also quick, an energised madrigal, and there’s a joy in its folk songs that doesn’t fit the Pre-Raphaelite mood of elegiac contemplation. The other Scandinavian groups that NorthSide selects for re-packaging and re-release in the U.S. play folk as well, but none of them sound like this. Ranarim doesn’t turn the folk into rock, as Hoven Droven does, and it doesn’t open vocal nests of spiky pagan wasp-women, as Värttinä does. Nor does it have the unearthly, nature-worshipping hoot and shriek of Gjallarhorn, or the down-to-earth jauntiness of JPP, or the galvanised, dancing style of Hedningarna. Its danciness is less frenzied, more acoustic, the apple-cheeked bounce of a hopped-up village green.
The group began with its two singers, Ulrika Bodén and Sofia Sandén, and the nyckelharpa player, Niklas Roswall, who met at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music. Boden seems to be the group’s mainstay. More than one of the tracks on this album bears the credit, Lyrics: Traditional, Music: U. Bodén. She sets the two female voices off in harmony, one with a higher part, the other lower, then makes them swerve together, dive, and swoop. Roswall and his nyckelharpa keep up an excited bubble of fiddle-noise, accompanied by Jans Engelbrecht on the guitar, Anders Johnsson on double bass, and Olle Londer on percussion. The group photo shows Londer holding a tambourine flat against his thigh as if it’s been glued there.
The music takes its cues from ballads, traditional polska tunes, and old love songs. The title track itself is a love song (“See my beloved dancing / Like the morning star”) and so is “Brinna Inga Hjärtan” or “No Hearts Ablaze” and “Kärleken Slutar Så Sena”, or “Love Everlasting”. That last song uses a single voice rather than two. Gravely and keenly she sings about her absent lover: “He’ll be back in a year or two / When the lilies spring from the soil”.
When a polska is used then they make a note of the region—“Traditional Polska from Rättvik”, “Traditional Polska from Abbekås in Southern Skåne”—referring to the tune like a wine that changes its flavour according to the soil. One of the tracks is a polska on its own, without any lyrics, only a few birdish yelps. The other songs are far wordier. “Bondepraktikan” or “The Farmer’s Almanac” runs to twelve verses. The musicians have taken “a book which has been in every farm house in northern Europe since the end of the 15th century” and decided to sing the contents, one verse to each month.
This is the Almanac’s advice for February:
“Jag fruktar nu kalvsjukan med makt
ved att hugga, gödning att föra giver jag på akt
en varm skinnkjortel det kan jag väl lida
jag låter mitt blod månd kölden förbida.”
“Bondepraktikan” is followed by a compilation of Icelandic and Swedish chants that were supposed to bring good fortune to sheep, scaring away non-human predators and keeping the weather at a nice, sheep-enhancing temperature.
Morning Star is an album made by people who are so good at what they do and take such pleasure in it that they don’t need to go out of their way to convince us that it’s good. We can tell from the first song. The women’s voices give the music a surface simplicity while the arrangements keep it complicated underneath so no one has a chance to get bored. I must have listened to the album at least ten times by now and after writing this I’m looking forward to hearing to it again. If you were here with me now, I’d put it on for you. You’re not, so all I can do is wave my hands around and shout, “Try it! Try it now!” at the screen and hope that the message somehow filters across.
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// Notes from the Road
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