[5 January 2009]
Susanna Wallumrod is the understated Norwegian indie/jazz singer who performs sans-surname, previously as Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, and now just as Susanna. Her previous solo album, Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos, was all originals, but she’s returned to the MOA of Melody Mountain, the album of covers she released with the Magic Orchestra in 2006 (2005 in the UK). Instead of ex-Jaga Jazzist member Morten Qvenild, this time Susanna’s joined by Qvenild’s In the Country bandmate Pal Hauksen and Supersilent’s Helge Sten, Rune Grammofon stalwarts who help create the sparse but haunting atmospherics Susanna’s come to be associated with.
Where Melody Mountain turned recognizable pop and hard rock hits into these floating, spare ballads, so Flower of Evil follows a similar formula. Susanna presents songs by Prince, Thin Lizzy, Lou Reed, and Abba, e.g., in the same manner – over simple grand piano chords that ring out like a Chopin prelude; shimmering cymbals that crescendo and drop away; and the occasional buzz of a treated guitar. The key, of course, is Susanna’s voice: a clear, plaintive instrument that she uses to define her cover versions and sprinkle them with character. Her voice echoes the widescreen emotion of the songs, whether croaking into gear at a phrase’s beginning or holding out a suspension over slow-shifting accompaniment, without a hint of vibrato. It comes to seem a definition of purity, until she finds that keening lament (as in a spiritual) on, say, the chorus of “Can’t Shake Loose”.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy sings backup on “Jailbreak” but really makes a difference on the duet version of Badfinger’s “Without You”. Will Oldham’s voice blends into the soft timbre perfectly, fragile but without schmaltz, graciously making way for her more full-throated sound at the mid-point. Oldham is a nice addition, but this is Susanna’s show. Her completely re-tooled version of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” is a good example. In Wallumrod’s hands, the song becomes a sweet country ballad, accentuated with off-beat percussion and a quick flourish in the piano. Likewise, Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” is a thing of shimmering beauty, a short atonal effect in the background giving way to rolling piano arpeggios. Throughout, Susanna manages to extract charm and intimacy from this varied source material.
Wallumrod’s own songs – two succinct tracks that appear almost with an apologetic lack of heft—do blend easily with the tone of the album, but do little on their own to excite. The repetitions of “Whispering, whispering / And chanting, chanting” on “Wild Is the Will” recall Frida Hyvonen, a singer whose jazz underpinning and forthright vocal style Wallumrod occasionally recalls. Her piano ballads, beautiful and limpid as they are, do begin to merge into homogeneity by the final third of the record. So while Flower of Evil contains some majestic and heartbreaking moments, there’s also this sedative thrall, perpetuated by downbeat tempi and utilitarian timbre, that can make these same moments slip by unnoticed.
It must be the season for cover records. What with Cat Power’s EP, the Postmarks, and now Susanna offering versions of recognizable songs done up with (each in their own way) unique female vocal treatments, there’s plenty to distract the casual listener. Susanna’s probably going to remain something for those who are more adventurous; these Spartan, strange re-interpretations are emotive and certainly accessible, but over the course of the album the persistent melancholy becomes heavy indeed.