Anneli Drecker: Rocks & Straws
Rune Grammofon

Anneli Drecker's reputation precedes her on this exquisite collection of vocal and songwriting artistry. The Norwegian artist first became known in the ‘80s through Bel Canto, which paired her with Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) and Nils Johansen; she also appeared with A-ha on two world tours as their guest singer and toured for more than ten years with Röyksopp. As important is the fact that Drecker has forged a solo career that has seen her record three albums based on poems by John Donne and Hart Crane, and now Rocks & Straws carries on that tradition by basing all ten (eleven, if the bonus track “Little Tree” is included) of its Drecker-composed songs on lyrics by poet Arvid Hanssen (translated into English by Roy-Frode Løvland).

In the press release, Rocks & Straws is pitched as “a homecoming album, an ode to [Drecker's] native town and region,” and a mere scan of the song titles, with their references to fishing, seagulls, boats, and wind, reinforces the claim. The focus is very much on the interactions between North Norwegian residents and their surroundings, and the music feels enlivened by direct connections to the natural world and the arctic region. Each song is like a short story rendered into musical form, with Drecker tailoring the song's arrangement, mood, and style to match the subject matter of Hanssen's lyrics. When she assumes the persona of an aged fisherman on the poignant meditation “Fisherman's Blues,” for instance, there's never a moment that it doesn't feel as if she's completely inhabiting the character and channeling his wry experiences to the listener.

But though the forty-five-minute album is lyrically evocative and thematically strong, it's the music that is its primary drawing card. Drecker eschews modern-day electronics for a time-honoured acoustic presentation performed live by a stellar cast of musicians, among them guitarist Eivind Aarset, drummer Rune Arnesen, bassist Ole Vegard Skauge, and Tromsø's Arctic Philharmonic (Drecker herself plays piano and organ). The album's sonic expansiveness is exemplified by the glorious “Ocean's Organ” in the way it folds a Maori group singing kapa haka songs into its anthemic presentation. The album flirts with a harder-edged rock style during “Green Leaves in the Snow,” though for the most part Rocks & Straws opts for a relatively restrained delivery.

That Drecker's vocal gifts haven't diminished since her Bel Canto days is apparent the instant her haunting voice appears within the gorgeous “Alone,” a timeless example of folk-drone whose undulating melodies are more than a little soul-stirring. In keeping with its title and lyrics, “Circulating Light” is resplendent in tone, and a multi-hued arrangement teeming with piano, drums, and orchestral strings helps amplify the song's exuberance (interestingly, though her vocal delivery has been spoken of in the same breath as Liz Fraser's and Lisa Gerrard's, it's Kate Bush's that comes to mind during “Circulating Light”).

The lilting ballad setting “Come Summer's Wind” provides one of the album's most graceful moments, and when midway through the song Drecker stretches out the title's last word to let it ascend heavenward, the effect is so sublime it brings a tear to the eye. But as lovely as that gesture is, it's hardly the only one on this magical album, as evidenced by the remarkable vocal performances she delivers in “Alone,” “Rain,” and “Seagull's Melody.” As the album nears its end, Rocks & Straws offers one final bit of entrancement when “Waiting for a Boat” swells to a magnificent climax. But as special as that moment is, it's merely one of many on this triumphant and beautiful collection.

July-August 2015