Finally, the debut by Norway's much-ballyhooed rocker gets a proper Stateside release.
Not long after PopMatters lavished heaps of richly deserved praise in the wake of her performance at CMJ in October of 2007, a bit of an Internet buzz started to form around Norwegian-born, Swedish-based sparkplug Ida Maria Børli Sivertsen, bloggers quickly latching on to her incendiary garage rock throwback single "Oh My God", filesharers exchanging her demo tracks. She and her three-piece backing band had already been touring Scandinavia extensively, building a fanbase and establishing a reputation as a powerhouse live act, but things started to turn early in 2008 when the slavering UK music press latched itself onto Ida Maria's increasingly crowded bandwagon, resulting in a raucous performance on BBC's later…With Jools Holland.
After her triumphant homecoming performance in Oslo at the annual By:Larm festival, where she won the fest's award of a $20,000 grant, it was only a matter awaiting her much-anticipated debut album, which upon its May release debuted at number three on the Norwegian album chart and remained in the top 20 for much of the year. By the time it was released in the UK two months later, it very impressively charted in the top 40.
Those of us on this side of the Atlantic, however, have had to be a lot more patient. Though it hasn't even been a year and a half since Ida Maria graced the front page of PopMatters, at the speed the web-driven music world goes these days, it still feels like an eternity, and as late as the proper North American release of Fortress Round My Heart might seem to some, the energy that this charming little album exudes hasn't diminished at all. It might not be the most cutting-edge music you'll hear all year, as there's not a riff, not a hook we haven't heard before, but backed by an exceptionally tight band and boasting a voice that can go from a tender croon to a hoarse, maniacal scream in a heartbeat, the charismatic Ida Maria's determined to win us over on this record, or die trying.
Fortress is at its very best when the band's energy level is at its highest. The aforementioned "Oh My God" remains her signature tune, and for good reason, the three-minute track brilliantly shifting from tense, repeated, sparsely worded verses (drummer Olle Lundin's heartbeat-like kick drum beats mirroring Ida Maria's jittery delivery) and explosive choruses of loud, primal rock 'n' roll, her impassioned exhortations of the title phrase sounding both epiphanic and orgasmic at the same time. Centering around a taut hi-hat beat, sharp, slicing riffs, and a slyly ska-tinged bassline, the joyous, borderline silly "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" is reminiscent of Stiff Records singles of the early-1980s, while the whimsical "Louie" bounces along buoyantly, propelled by an ebullient skiffle beat. Meanwhile, "Queen of the World" has Ida Maria offering an apt description of her rambunctious live persona, as she often shows absolutely no regard for her own personal safety while onstage: "I’m queen of the world / I bump into things / I spin around in circles / And I'm singing / Why can't I stay like this?"
When things slow down, Fortress Around My Heart does flirt with tediousness, especially on the closing tune "See Me Through", but when she goes for full-on melodrama, she still comes out a winner, "Drive Away My Heart Tonight" and especially the booze-fueled "Stella" effectively cranking up the emotional theatrics. Although it's during these slower tracks that we start to wish the production would have been as raw as the original demos, the polish given to the album's ten songs isn't as heavy-handed as much of today's modern rock. It's a confident, downright cracking debut record, and late to the party as we in North America may be, when the music's a fun as this, it hardly matters at all.