[6 March 2008]
“Singer-songwriter” is the just the first of many badly sewn labels that Hanne Hukkelberg disposes of over the course of Rykestrasse 68. If the listener’s first impulse is to find the parallels with Anna Ternheim or Sondre Lerche, other Scandinavian songwriters in the more traditional sense of both “song” and “write”, those touchstones clearly lack of the self-consciousness of approach Hukkelberg displays. In fact, it’s difficult to find anything reason to classify her as such other than the fact that she probably sometimes performs live with a guitar.
A more apt comparison might be Jim O’Rourke: someone more concerned with the sound of their sound rather than whether or not their discrete concoctions come out into songs. Hukkelberg drapes herself in various genres, though clearly for the texture of the mariner’s lament or dramatic intensity of something operatic, not because either genres work as swallowing frames of interpretation. Category never reaches a level that’s particularly crucial to Hukkelberg, which is why it’s much easier to see her as some sort of beauty prankster and experimentalist than it is to see her as indebted to Carly Simon.
Hukkelberg assembles the tracks in aural layers around her voice, a warm core amidst the sometimes abandoned sonic architecture. “Berlin” never introduces a beat; instead, the song simply builds a minimal staircase around Hukkelberg’s idle play, broken in such oddly paced syllables that the listener’s ear inevitably draws away from the words and into the sound and the rhythm. The effect is bafflingly beautiful. When you get into the language, Hukkelberg’s intricacy as an artist rises a stunning level above musicians who make mere aural candy. Nothing against candy, but there’s something refreshingly adult in the way “Berlin” sketches in patient strokes a scene without a propulsive current, like a European movie that refuses to have a car chase.
The phrasing draws more of its inspiration from poetry, but wholly devoid of the pretension that the analogy implies. Hukkelberg picks her parts of speech as a drummer that makes the listener fill in part of the beat. I’d forgotten, in the current environment of hyperactive music consumption (something I’m totally guilty of), what it was like to have a piece of art resist in some way, being easily caged. But her layers of suggestion compel a level of participation that most albums never aspire to reach.
Hukkelberg’s vocal style vaguely resembles Victoria Bergman’s smoky innocence, but less childlike and more deliberate. She also isn’t afraid to fall in creepy ways out of her own range, like Siouxsie Sioux’s on songs like “The Pirate” where she swings and swaggers off key like she’s bludgeoning the listener in a pub. But that total/atonal play reminiscent of more recent bands like Moonshake and Pram falls flattest when it veers closest to straightforward spoken word. On “Fourteen”, that sense that you might be “listening to poetry” becomes literal in pacing which brings the album into a premature thud. For pure poetry, I feel like I don’t need the poet. The song never recovers from that sense that you were lured into a trick and Hukkelberg doesn’t need the crutch of the poetry reading cadence to ask the listener to reflect.
She quickly recovers quickly with “The North Wind”, which slowly rises into an icily shattering crescendo from an initial disconnected backdrop of old typewriter ticks. Even the crescendo violates the regularities by making it a climax of dispersion and unraveling rather than something that builds into a coalesced peak. It’s difficult to listen to Hukkelberg and not depend on the language of evocation. Many of the songs sound cold or desolate because of the distance between their parts and “The Pirate” builds its sound and rhythm out roiling ocean intonation. Hukkelberg aims for high art without the drugs, something literary that isn’t rarefied. The odd time signatures, the occasional free jazz flow of a song like “Pynt”, none of it severs the album from its stand alone beauty. It’s particularly amusing when Hukkelberg makes the familiar strange, turning the Pixies “Break My Body” into a trailed wail lost in a complicated weave of percussion. It’s strangely more masochistic than the original for its foregrounded frailty.
Rykstrasse 68 made me painfully aware of how easy it is to critically fall into barren, reactive poses. It took watching the video of “Cheater’s Armory” for me to reconsider the song as political metaphor for some kind of working-class lament of broken promises. My default setting is “relationships” and when politics gets brought up in the music, I expect it to be so naggingly obvious as to name check Karl Rove, as if people like Karl Rove should be preserved in something that’s trying to be artistic. The song’s ragtime sea shanty motion clicks by with such great distraction, it’s easy to miss that the song is so completely immersed into a blue mood. Hukkelberg obviously and successfully aims for a very considered level of emotional complexity.
Rykestrasse 68 is not the record you put on when you’re trying to multi-task your way onto the next thing on your list. It rewards stillness, listening, and deciphering. Normally, I would read a description like that and cynically strangle my expectations. But this is not music too self aware for its own good, putting intellect before beauty, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Rykestrasse 68, to the contrary, vibrantly argues the case against their separation at birth.