It’s been a while since I listened to a new Väsen album. I think the last one was Linnaeus Väsen, the trio’s contribution to Sweden’s 2007 celebration of Linnaeus’ birth-anniversary. Then there was an album in collaboration with Mike Marshall and Darol Anger, but I missed it, for no particular reason. Just did. It was probably good. Most Väsen albums are good. Some sort of natural law.
Väsen Street celebrates another anniversary, Väsen’s own. The band has been together since 1989, when the Swedish nyckelharpa-viola partnership of Olov Johansson and Mikael Marin was joined by the acoustic guitarist Roger Tallroth. André Ferrari the percussionist played with them for some years before absenting himself, daunted by travel. He appears on this album but his role is not a major one, limited to a single track, the dense and ceremonial “Hagsätra Brudmarsh”, which was composed for a friend’s wedding. The group dedicates a polska to him, “Asko Pasko Polska”. “Väsen’s fantastic percussion player got this on his 41st birthday,” offers the notes. As normal on a Väsen disc the descriptions of the songs are chatty, kind-hearted, and sometimes enigmatic, as if everything here has been translated from Swedish and is part of a dry joke. “Tunggus is red and Lintas green. They needed a polska”.
The title is taken from the album’s ninth track, a schottis written to commemorate a group of Väsen enthusiasts from the US who tried to have a street in Bloomington, Indiana named after the band. So far no luck, but now other people who buy Väsen Street will know who they are. An optimistic lesson in this: persistence can pay off, even if it doesn’t do it in the way you thought it would. Nyckelharpa and viola swing together in a series of Swedish-Scottish twists, complicated whirlpools, while Tallroth pins them down with hammer-blow chops on the guitar. It’s the typical Väsen sound. The flow of the bowed strings is so free and skilful that it might go anywhere it liked, instead choosing to be held in check by the shape of the traditional folk music, the quick turns and hops. And the whole exercise is kept earth-bound by the guitar. Tallroth is the secret ingredient, the touch that originally set them apart from other Swedish string groups, traditionally reliant on bowed strings rather than plucked ones. As always, the playing is excellent. There is a gravity to the Väsen sound. They don’t have the hoedown-rock tempo of a Hoven Droven, or the pagan mysticism of some other Scandinavian folk outfits. The guitar, its notes broader than the sharpness of the bowed nyckelharpa, spreads out under the other two like a sheet of felt. The gravity of their playing gives each song a feeling of being presented or framed, as if on a stage, illuminated.
“Väsen Street” is followed by “Absolute Swedish”, a collaboration with an electric guitar player from Brazil named Hamilton de Hollanda. Marshall and Anger make guest appearances on fiddle and mandolin. The album to this point had been so focused on the trio that the mandolin was a surprise; I looked for the cover to find out what this weird new noise was. Other than that, there is nothing radical on Väsen Street. It’s business as usual for the group, which translates as: all exceptionally good — superlative, superlative, blah blah blah, etcetera, go listen.