There’s a telling moment midway through tonight’s performance when drummer, Pal Hausken, with genuine concern in his voice, asks the audience, "Are you okay?" He is, effectively, checking the room for a pulse. It’s perfectly understandable in the circumstances, as there’s a worrying reverence over this Sunday evening sojourn of ‘Norwegian jazz’ of a kind normally reserved for those tiptoeing around sleeping children. Susanna Karolina Wallumrod’s music is akin to an antique porcelain deer in danger of cracking at the slightest sneeze (which someone does during a particularly delicate passage).
Her criteria for covering songs on her second solo album, the somewhat metal-monikered, Flower Of Evil, appears to have no immediate rhyme nor reason. Are these the songs of her youth? Is this the stuff she sings in the shower? Whatever her incentive, this collection, from Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ to Prince’s ‘Dance On’, are all given a similar treatment, stripped down to the skeleton and the bare organs, as if she is hoping, in some clinical way, to discover how these songs tick.
From the opening, muted count-in of Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More,’ the trio are on simmer, only once coming close to boiling over with a suitably arch rendition of Nico’s ‘Janitor Of Lunacy.’ Ironically, it’s here that Susanna sounds most effective, amongst the dark forces. Similarly, Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is astutely rendered as a dystopian funeral march; "I feel a kind of fear/When I don’t have you near," has seldom sounded so exquisitely bleak. Likewise Agnetha Fältskog’s innocuous, obscure ‘80s Euro hit, ‘Can’t Shake Loose,’ is bled of sheen and beat; shot through with Helge Sten’s desolate, howling guitar. It can’t have been lost on Wallumrod that Fältskog was once something of a tragic Scandinavian pop heroine.
Tonight’s sonic palette is minimal. Piano, electric guitar, percussion, a spare clang of bell… and there are times when songs steer unashamedly into ‘Albatross’ territory; only Wallumrod’s crystalline voice providing a focus. Sitting bolt upright at the piano, Susanna has none of the theatrical distractions of those her voice could most closely (or lazily) bracketed amongst: Tori Amos, Kate Bush. Tonight is all about the words, served clear and crisp to a bewitched hall. ‘Without You,’ perhaps my favourite song of all time, is never going to reach the dizzy emotional heights of Harry Nilsson’s version but it’s an admirable effort, slowed down to a near stop, the last beat of a broken heart. It’s sung like a suicide note.
Despite such esteemed company, Wallumrod’s own compositions fit snugly in the set; they’re given the same somnambulant application. It’s little wonder that the audience are terrified of their own chair squeaks or over-clapping.
At times, I find myself guiltily of hoping for a sudden cymbal crash or the rhythmic intervention of a bass, but as is the case with her day job, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, less really can be more.
'Scene Norway' Festival
Kings Place, Kings Cross. Sun 16th Nov 2008