A soporific lullaby of the heart and mind, Björklund’s Shaken puts to bed any misconception of how a Danish artist should sound.
When considering Denmark’s musical exports, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, the Raveonettes and Volbeat come to mind. Add in the annual Roskilde Festival and you only further the notion that the Nordic country is solely keen on rock. With a little help from American and British friends, Danish pedal steel guitarist/singer/composer Maggie Björklund looks to change that perception.
Since her 2011 debut, Coming Home, which featured Mark Lanegan, Jon Auer (the Posies, Big Star) and Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, Björklund has toured with American acts such as Howe Gelb and Jack White, even performing on White’s Lazaretto released this year. Again enlisting the help of Convertino, Björklund also called on cellist Barb Hunter (Afghan Whigs), bassist Jim Barr (Portishead), guitarist/producer John Parish (PJ Harvey) and vocalist Kurt Wagner (Lambchop) for her latest release, Shaken.
An even mix of instrumental and vocal tracks, Shaken focuses on figurative and literal distances through its vocal passages. On the jazzy "Walking" Björklund sings, "I walked all night and I walked all day / Walked through the fire too / But when I stopped I was still no closer to you." Similarly, her pop siren admits "I never know how to enter your town / I end up looking and quietly walking around / But never finding you or a dime on the ground" on "Name in the Sand". Trading vocals with Wagner on the fleeting poetry of "Fro Fro Heart", the pair posits the expungement of grief: "For every day begun / Another setting sun / Another chance / To walk away / A chance to run." Björklund walks along a similar thematic path on the baptismal "Ashes".
Largely written during the period where Björklund cared for her dying mother, Shaken’s instrumental compositions give the album its sonic texture and tempermental center. Opener "Dark Side of the Heart" features Hunter’s sparse cello and Björklund’s teetering pedal steel and vocal apparitions. The dusty "The Road to Samarkand", with its Spaghetti Western slide guitar and flamenco flourishes, belies any perception of its title destination. The menacing guitar and bass at the outset of "The Unlucky" take a sweet, lucid turn before cycling back along its circuitous path as if an anxious fever dream. The listing creaks of "Missing at Sea" approximate a lurking doom that is ultimately averted, while Convertino’s militaristic drum beat guides the somber procession of "Amador" with its cello accents and weepy reverb.
Citing the experience of her mother’s passing and its impact on the recording, Björklund notes, "That little gap between the life before and and the life after … holds some fundamental truths if we dare to explore them. I chose to stay with it and let it happen." One can empathize with Björklund’s vacillating emotions when she sings "I’m lost for words I don’t know how / To breathe when you are not with me" on album closer "Teach Me How to Say Goodbye". By embracing a natural yet inevitable life event to inform the album’s core, Shaken is at turns unsettling and cathartic, its compositions highlighting Björklund’s full musical range through exploration in tandem with the talents of the musicians on hand. A soporific lullaby of the heart and mind, Björklund’s Shaken puts to bed any American misconception of how a Danish artist should sound.