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Susanna and the Magical Orchestra - Melody Mountain

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Artist: Susanna and the Magical Orchestra

Album: Melody Mountain

Label: Rune Grammofon

Review date: Aug. 20, 2006

Where we’re at right now, almost no cultured person will admit to enjoying “irony.” While it was nice to shift away from bad art serving as an extended commentary on its own emptiness, some stories remain more effective when the audience has more information than is flaunted by the text. Let’s give irony a break, okay? People who whine about irony have become as annoying as the most deathly smug ironist.

Some cover tunes work as complex inversions on ceremonial handshakes, particularly when you’re the sort of music geek who might be reading this. When Susuanna and the Magical Orchestra play their threadbare take on AC/DC’s hard-bitten rebel yell “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” the icy, understated voice coming through the speakers harmonizes with what we already know about this song and AC/DC. We know that this song was a temporary triumph over the things (“Getting high / Getting stoned / Getting beat up / Broken bone,” et al) that eventually killed Bon Scott. The song becomes a funeral march for an action-packed dream. What is that, if not the most poignant, powerful sort of irony?

For one thing, it’s fucking gorgeous.

The Magical Orchestra is really just one guy, Norwegian Morten Qvenild, founding member of Jaga Jazzist and an accomplished multi-instrumentalist in several genres. With mournfully unaffected vocalist Susanna Karolina Wallumrod, he recorded List of Lights, a set of originals plus a cover of Dolly Parton’s haunted classic “Jolene.” The cover worked so well that the duo dropped a whole album’s worth of them. Qvenild rarely resorts to overdubs, giving Melody Mountain a church-like solemnity to honor Susanna’s cold, disciplined voice and reposition the material’s wild tangle of emotions.

The album’s other re-jiggered cock-rock nugget (“Crazy, Crazy Nights” by Kiss) is almost as striking, if a lot less sublime. The balance of Melody Mountain is given over to more obvious source material. In these lovely, unforgiving arrangements, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Prince’s “Condition of the Heart” and Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” reveal the self-lacerating subtexts beneath their poppy perfectionism. Most surprisingly, the duo pulls off the prettiest version yet of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Joy Division’s excessively covered pity party for tortured serial monogamists.

It’s sad, beautiful, subversive stuff, employing and ultimately destroying the associations built on these songs.

Of course, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is sad and heavy to begin with, and this take is little more than a beautiful version of a beautiful song. To succeed, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra’s music doesn’t have to stand for more than it is. More often, though, it’s a long way to the bottom of their brilliance.

By Emerson Dameron

Other Reviews of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra

List of Lights and Buoys


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