[11 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Considering just how eclectic Hanne Hukkelberg’s music can be, it’s not much of a surprise that the Norwegian singer-songwriter benefits greatly from changing her environment when it’s time to start composing the next record. After her wondrous 2004 debut Little Things, she relocated to Berlin, and it was there where her accomplished follow-up Rykestrasse 68 took shape, gracefully evolving from idiosyncratic little Jon Brion-esque pastiches to more well-rounded blends of jazz, folk, pop, and even some Kurt Weill-esque cabaret thrown in.
For her third full-length, Hukkelberg decided to head north instead of south. A lot farther north, in fact, on the tiny Norwegian island of Senja, located some 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Living in such isolation would have one assuming the resulting album would be one of stark intimacy, something along the lines of Múm’s sublime 2004 album Summer Make Good, but while that cozy ambience does play a significant role on Blood from a Stone, the songs themselves turn out to be some of Hukkelberg’s most extroverted work to date.
The tones of the new record are unmistakably Hukkelberg, delicately and meticulously arranged with her playful voice front and center, but for its low-key ambience, Blood From a Stone‘s rock influences are undeniable. In clumsier hands, a song like “Mid Night Sun Dream” would have come off as a somewhat rote exercise in the murky tones of mid-1990s PJ Harvey, but with longtime collaborator/producer Kåre Vestrheim, Hukkelberg strips the song right down to its skeletal form, the insistent electric guitar and thrumming bass operating subtly in the background, allowing her layered, slowly crescendoing vocals to convey the kind of visceral power that others would leave for the guitars to handle.
The Pixies’ influence has always been prevalent in Hukkelberg’s compositions (her ingenious cover of “Break My Body” one of Rykestrasse 68‘s several highlights), and it rears its head once again on the terrific title track, as Hukkelberg eschews her usual tender croon in favor of a more confrontational tone. Meanwhile, the hard-charging “Bandy Riddles” and the coy “In Here/Out There” don’t hide their post punk influences despite the usual clever arrangements, Hukkelberg’s near-forceful delivery starting to resemble that of Siouxsie Sioux herself.
Hukkelberg’s eclectic musical background, which included a stint singing with noteworthy doom metal band Funeral, has always been a big factor in the confidence and audacity of her albums, and the melancholy, dirge-like “Salt of the Earth” doesn’t hide its doom influence one bit, distorted guitars and thudding drums substituted with crashing piano chords and clattering percussion, the overall feel not a far cry from Funeral’s 2002 album In Fields of Pestilent Grief, on which Hukkelberg sang. Indeed, it’s when the album becomes downcast that it truly excels, best exemplified by the dour “No Mascara Tears”, with its atonal bursts of guitar threatening to consume Hukkelberg’s sympathetic melody, and also on the dreamy “Bygd Til By”, a song whose scope is far more cinematic than the more direct approach of the rest of the album.
No matter what mood she’s trying to convey, the one great characteristic of Hukkelberg’s music is warmth. Nowhere near as ostentatious as Bat For Lashes’ talented mastermind Natasha Khan and devoid of the pretensions that seem to make Björk alternately enthralling and frustrating, Hukkelberg’s more classy approach, whether it’s in the vocals or the instrumental arrangements, makes her albums inviting and her live performances seductive. Plus, nowhere else will you hear albums that rely so heavily on found objects for percussion (among the pieces used on this album, flagpoles, rocks, and a Vaseline box), yet at the same time utilize those sounds so tastefully that it’s never a distraction, and we rarely if ever stop to consider just what’s being used. Her ability to sound so eccentric yet create music so inherently comfortable is no small feat; by now, we know that wherever she goes to write her albums, and whatever bric-a-brac she ends up playing, the end result is always going to be sublime, and Blood From a Stone is no exception.