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Susanna and the Magical Orchestra - 3

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Artist: Susanna and the Magical Orchestra

Album: 3

Label: Rune Grammofon

Review date: Sep. 4, 2009

Melody Mountain got a certain amount of mileage out of pitting Susanna Karolina Wallumrod’s angelic voice against familiar, sometimes rough material. The shiver that “It’s a Long Way to the Top” induced was partly due to its high, otherworldly texture, partly from the recognition that this was an AC/DC song, one that had played on the radio for a long time, that had nonetheless been transmuted into something eerily unrecognizable. There was a stunning transposition of expectations, a subversion of well-known, well-worn symmetries in this cover, and that was true of other cuts – KISS’s “Crazy, Crazy Nights,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Now in the third Susanna album, Wallumrod and her partner Morten Qvenild, venture mostly into original territory. There are only two covers – Roy Harper’s “Another Day” and Rush’s “Subdivisions” – and neither song is exactly canonical. As a result, there is a shift in the duo’s art and its impact on the listener. Where before, they began with the familiar and made it strange and unearthly, with 3 they start out with the otherworldly and try, in a variety of ways and only partly successfully, to ground it.

First, there is Wallumrod’s voice, as crystalline as ever in the high range, yet prone now to dip into an earthier middle range. The phrase, “Do you recall?” in opener “Recall” begins in icy purity and floats there until the final syllable, when Wallumrod digs down and nearly belts the ending. Later on the single “Palpatine’s Dream,” the shift is even more pronounced, with Wallumrod slurring the verse like a jazz singer, pushing the chorus like a pop diva. Where before you could imagine her singing folk, even classical music, now she seems ready for Top 50…maybe R&B. (Check the murmured “ohs” moaned into the chorus.)

The other big change is that the songwriting isn’t quite enough to carry the day, so Quenvild builds up the arrangements around them. “Recall” starts out hushed, just plinking synthesizer and Wallumrod’s singing, but it ends in a hyper-dramatic barrage of electro-drums. And, worse, the track really needs the bump. The opening, however beautiful, is a bit dull. “Guiding Star,” which follows, is never boring, but it does feel over-stuffed and over-thought, with its massed Susanna-doubling choruses and woozy synths. You long for the clean, eerie economy of Melody Mountain, but the songs here are either shapeless or overdecorated – and sometimes both.

Neither of the two covers is as successful as the ones on Melody Mountain, though both have their charms. Harper’s “Another Day” is slowed to narcosis, its lyrics about missed love and unborn children turned chilly against a liquid backing of piano. It’s exhausted rather than tragic, evoking the bleak tail of a terrible argument, the point when you can’t summon the energy to care anymore. “Subdivisions” is just odd, though, its bell-tone synths framing a dead-pan consideration of American anomie – shopping malls, high schools, etc. – in disco-pop flavors reminiscent of Abba (the sad Abba, the ones who wrote “Fernando” and “The Winner Takes It All”).

The melodies slip away, the time signatures flicker in and out. Everything is unstructured and impressionistic, but not terribly arresting. Again and again, you confront a very pretty voice with not much to say. “I just need sensational OK for a while,” Wallumrod sings in “The Game.” Sensational voice, humdrum melodies and arrangements that are just all right…I’d say she’s got her wish.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra

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Melody Mountain

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Find out more about Rune Grammofon

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