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A Norwegian bird of paradise

Jeff Buckley had a beautiful voice. When he sang, a listener could imagine what the angels on high must sound like. Others say Celine Dion has a beautiful voice. The 30 million plus people that bought the soundtrack to the movie Titanic must have thought so, or else why did they spend their cold, hard cash on the album? Norwegian star Sissel Kyrkjebo’s voice resembles Dion’s in terms of their shared ethereal, high-pitched tonalities. Sissel also sang on the Titanic soundtrack, at the request of music producer James Horner. On Sissel’s most recent album, she does a version of Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”, which Buckley covered so lovingly before his untimely death. Unfortunately, Sissel is no Buckley.


“Dido’s Lament” comes from England’s oldest opera, Dido and Aeneas. Queen Dido decides to kill herself rather than live without her one true love. Singing in a high soprano voice, Dido welcomes death and tells Aeneas to remember her in life, but to forget her tragic fate.  When Buckley sang this tune, his melancholia was majestic. One felt the pain and passion of the lyrics. However while Sissel hits all the right notes, there is nothing in her rendition that bespeaks of her love’s madness. When Sissel bawls “When I am laid / am laid in earth / may my wrongs / create no trouble / no trouble in thy breast” the repetition of phrases and odd line breaks sound more like she’s painting a musical picture by numbers than actually crying out her jagged emotions. One could transcribe the score from Sissel’s rendition because of her faultless reading. Buckley’s would break your heart.


The overwhelming majority of the dozen tracks on Into Paradise come from the classical repertoire, but this is strictly classical-lite. That’s not always a bad thing. This gives Sissel the opportunity to show-off her vocal range and to educate listeners about the glories of the Western canon. This album was released as Nordisk Vinternatt in Scandinavia during the winter 2005 and has received Platinum award status in Norway and exceeded the Gold level in Denmark and Sweden. The masses who purchased this album could conceivably use it as an introduction to discover the glories of the masterworks from which Sissel samples, like the way teeny boppers in the sixties uncovered the catalogue of Chess masters’ Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon through covers by The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin And while the Norwegian soprano’s rendition of “Dido’s Lament” may lack soul, some of her other forays into the classics are successful.


Sissel delightfully sings 19th century Irish composer William Balfe’s “Marble Halls”. Her crystal clear voice seems better suited to this light aria delivered by a girl who dreams of riches and true love. As piano keys lightly tinkle behind Sissel, she charmingly croons the simple desires of a peasant lass in globular, crystalline notes. The Scandinavian singer also successfully delivers classical composer Geirr Tveitt’s “Dusk” in dulcet tones as if each word was a precious gem. She keeps the pace slow and holds the vowel sounds for long breaths as a way of conveying the wintry Northern landscape from which she views the Norwegian horizon. However, Sissel takes the opposite approach and ratchets up the pace and volume to mimic the sound of one’s own anxious heart beating furiously on the traditional folk tune “Ingen Vinner Frem”, whose key line “Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro” (“No one attains everlasting peace when they refuse to listen to a higher voice”) bespeaks an existential terror. The fact that Sissel can successfully sing soft and slow or loud and fast attests to her virtuousity.


The title of this disc Into Paradise comes directly from the Gabriel Faure’s tone poem that Sissel covers, but also suggests the generally pleasant nature of the album’s material. Regrettably, paradise can be a boring place where nothing ever happens (eh, David Byrne?). This record has its moments and will appeal to those looking for a certain type of beautiful music, but many others may find this beauty dull.

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Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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