Harv: Polka Raggioso

[15 September 2005]

By Nikki Tranter

Let's Dance

Thank heavens for NorthSide. For fans of traditional Nordic music, the record company serves up a veritable smorgasbord of delights; from the folk sounds of Tiger Moth and Oysterband, to more hardcore traditional acts like Ale Moller and Olov Johansson. New and old releases are available at NorthSide’s web-shop. They ship worldwide, and every Thursday offer $5 deals on some of their finest products. For NorthSide, it’s all about electrifying a modern audience with the traditional sounds of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Sámiland. The best part of the revolution—NorthSide calls it the ” most exciting music movement on the planet”—is that so many of the best new acts on the label feature players well under 30.

The founding members of NorthSide’s Harv, for example, started playing together at 15. Granted, Magnus Stinnerbom and Daniel Sandén-Warg kicked off their careers emulating Hendrix, but they eventually they moved to polka, releasing Must in 2000. The album was very much an experiment in saucing up traditional polka. Instead of setting about modernizing or making hip traditional polka, though, Harv simply added an infectious excitement to the music that could only have come from a sense of renewal.

Polka Raggioso is Harv’s newest CD and absolutely the band’s best, mainly due to the clear rise in the band’s confidence levels—surely a result of the experiment’s success, both on Must and the band-described party album, Töst (2002). This time out, the band takes more chances, moves in better directions. The best of these new self-assured pieces are two of Stinnerbom’s own compositions, “Tösen” and “Titania”. Stinnerbom labels the pieces “chick hits”, probably because they’re rather subdued, sounding almost like wordless poems. Both pieces evoke the highlands of Scotland as much as romantic Swedish isles or night views of Gripsholm Castle. At the same time, come to think of it, there’s a bit of bayou laced throughout.

Harv’s compositional and instrumental talent is really clear on these quieter pieces. The boys prove they’re about more than just swinging polka. Still, the dance numbers stand out, each one offering an entirely different feel from the one before. That difference is something that can only really be experienced listening to the CD in full. Tempos rise and fall, excitement builds, finds release, and builds again. Start these tracks in the middle and the effect is lost. “Directör Deg”, for example, takes at least a minute to develop its tinkly opening into a fully operational polka beat. “Raggarvals” works similarly, opening with a harsh and sticky beat only to become upbeat and sunny toward the middle and through the end.

The Harv kids attempt to explain these varied arrangements in the CDs liner notes. Here, for example, is the paragraph-long story behind “Raggarvals”:

It’s Saturday night. We are in the town square of Arvika. There’s a smell of oil and tarmac. There’s moonshine and leather boots. There are leather vests and buttock cheeks. We are dancing in cars. We are dancing on cars. We are dancing in the cue to the hotdog kiosk, in the kiosk and on the kiosk. It’s waltz. Yobbo-waltz.

The translation is hardly word perfect, but the message is absolutely clear. The piece, along with much of Raggioso, is made for dancing, and, as Harv would have us believe, even in line to buy snacks it gets the feet moving. These song-stories reveal Stinnerbom and Co. as super-cute and madly cheeky. They make no secret whatsoever of their healthy egos, each aware that their skills on violas and fiddles and flutes are just too superb.

Raggioso‘s strength is its assuredness. The Harv boys continue to push traditional boundaries with each record, never losing sight of the reasons behind polka’s endurance. It’s supposed to be fun, but at the same time, there are timing rules to abide by and playing standards to uphold. Harv’s modern injection succeeds because it pushes only as much as it has to. These guys aren’t out to change polka; they’re experiment is about making the old new again as only willing musicians of this caliber and with this amount of heart can.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/harv-polka/