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Phaedra - The Sea

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Artist: Phaedra

Album: The Sea

Label: Rune Grammofon

Review date: May. 26, 2011

The Sea is Phaedra’s debut album, the first part of a promised trilogy – “a lyrical and musical cycle.” Phaedra is the musical persona of Ingvild Langgård, a singer, songwriter and painter who has also worked with film, photography, field recordings, installations and vocal-based performance. Langgård plays acoustic guitar, piano, zither and harmonium; she also arranged the strings that intermittently accompany her. Across the eight tracks, she is joined by 10 other musicians, bur never en masse; her voice remains central throughout, with sparse instrumentation employed to subtly frame it and add coloration.

Langgård is the latest in an ongoing procession of distinctive Norwegian vocalists, following Susanna Karolina Wallumrød (and the Magical Orchestra), Mariam Walletin (of Wildbirds and Peacedrums) and Jenny Hval. Langgård’s light, ethereal voice clearly has Nordic roots, but it has little else in common with any in that list, and owes no obvious debt to any singer.

The music is predominantly acoustic. If it’s rooted in folk music, those roots are not evident. The diffuse, hummable melodies of Langgård’s songs are psychedelic if anything. Afterward, they do not lodge in the memory, and the listener is left with impressions of the overall sound and mood of the music – fitting, as those are the greatest strengths of The Sea.

Harmony instruments – including accordion, Hammond organ, vibraphone and zither – predominate, and Thora Dolven frequently harmonizes with Langgård on backing vocals. The only instruments that do occasionally emerge from the ensemble are Lise Sørensen’s lilting violin and viola. Otherwise, the voice is in the spotlight.

Langgård’s lyrics are as diffuse as the music – no bad thing. Most have no narrative, and often the vocals convey moods and emotions more than literal meaning. Many lyrics seem chosen for their sound, with the exceptions being “Black Dog” and “Sister.” While titles such as “Death Will Come," “The First to Die” and “The Darkest Hour” hint at common themes, these are never fully articulated or developed. Consequently, it is difficult to hear The Sea as the start of a trilogy -- there is no obvious coherent theme running through that could be developed on two further albums. Nonetheless, it is stylistically coherent and hangs together well. If Phaedra’s next two albums continue in a similar manner to this hauntingly beautiful debut, they will be worth the effort.

By John Eyles

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