[30 June 2014]
Known in Norway as the Norwegian Nick Drake, Thomas Dybdahl has been steadily working away at perfecting a sort of rustic funk-folk that homogenizes all of his disparate influences. The singer, who has managed to earn plenty of accolades in his home country but little press outside of it, has just released his latest. What’s Left Is Forever mines the earthy, rootsy folk that Dybdahl is known for, but also introduces a more pronounced element of funk that he only mildly flirted with on previous albums. While it doesn’t exactly evoke the squirmy, live bass-jams that Prince is noted for, there is definitely a sense of playfulness to Dybdahl’s funk and rhythm.
Some of this new experimentation could be owed to mixer (and sometime producer) Tchad Blake, celebrated for his work with Suzanne Vega, Stina Nordenstam and Lisa Germano. Blake has always had an unusual way with mixing drums sounds, giving them a coyly alien resonance at once artificial and organic. These beat-experimentations are the highlight of What’s Left Is Forever, and they play especially well with Dybdahl’s percussive guitar playing. New joyful jams like “Running On Fumes” have a soft, ethereal cushion of synthesized atmospheres that house the grooves. These numbers evoke sunny morning breakfasts on backyard decks during summer. On “Soulsister”, the singer channels a sleepy Prince woken after a long nap, the purple funk and heavenly plucks of acoustic guitar creating a sweet friction of fun and romance. Single “Man on a Wire” offers an insistent pop-rock groove etched in with the chiming strains of folk guitar.
Dybdahl’s voice, a croaked falsetto that crumples softly like paper, is his most distinctive instrument. Often, he sounds as though he’s gasping for air, the strange and sensual rust in his voice lending another swirl of color to his impressionistic sounds of folk-pop. His voice is best experienced on the more sparse numbers like “I Never Knew That What I Didn’t Know Could Kill Me”, a track that edges closer to late night jazz. Under the plush hits of brush wires and surreal wisps of strings, Dybdahl reaches for notes heavenward. On the expansive, lush and sea-faring “This Next Wave is a Big One”, the singer’s voice is mixed low to allow the carefully plucked chords to gently percolate beneath the electronically-manipulated orchestral arrangements. Much like the sea itself, the number rises and falls in waves of distortion, signalling the turbulences of a love in distress. There are a few more pop gems scattered about. “The Sculptor” manages a light dance groove, pleasant and simple, adorned with the fluttery strains of Dybdahl’s guitar. “So Long” veers close to glitch territory, practicing a beat-technique worthy of groove experimentalists Matmos.
Throughout it all, the artist maintains a consistent sonic thread that pulls together all of the contrasting elements together harmoniously; in the tissue of the sensual funk, there beats the heart of a folk-balladeer. It’s a sound infused with the soft, lush colors of pastels, at once soft and serene but clear and vibrant. Maybe the Norwegian Nick Drake is actually the Norwegian Serge Gainsbourg, then.