Hydras Dream: The Little Match Girl
Denovali Records

My guess is that your response to The Little Match Girl, the debut album by Swedish musicians Anna von Hausswolff and Matti Bye (the latter of whom composed the scores for the film Faro and The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared) under the Hydras Dream moniker, will be significantly affected by your familiarity with Hausswolff's 2013 album Ceremony. That album garnered considerable attention upon its release for the dramatic one-two punch of Hausswolff's declamatory vocal delivery and church organ playing, and sounds as powerful today as it did upon its release.

Comparing the two albums isn't entirely fair, given that the collaborators' goal is presumably not identical to those Hausswolff brought to her solo outing; specifically, Hausswolff and Bye design their music-making on The Little Match Girl so that it accords with the character of the Hans Christian Andersen story. That being said, it's impossible not to experience the Hydra Dream release without Ceremony echoing in the background for those who've heard it. If you fall into that group, you might find yourself wishing that more of Hausswolff's dramatic vocalizing had been included on the new release, even if that might have threatened to make it feel closer in spirit to her solo release than the group project.

Still, The Little Match Girl impresses on a number of counts when taken on its own terms. Though the album was written and recorded in a mere three days in Bye's Stockholm studio, it effectively conjures the dream-like mystery of a fairy tale world (though one more evocative of The Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen, for this listener at least). That doesn't come about through song titles only—though ones such as “Losing the Slippers” and “Grandma's Appearance” clearly carry with them story-like allusions—but more so through the musical settings. And with much of the album instrumental in makeup, The Little Match Girl often plays like a soundtrack the two might have created for a proposed film treatment of the story. Acoustic and synthetic sounds are prominently featured, with vocals by Hausswolff judiciously threaded into cryptic settings featuring piano, synthesizer, harpsichord, strings, and harp.

The album's moody character emerges at the outset when the mellotron-heavy overture “Last Evening of the Year” presents ominous keyboard patterns that hint at the dark events to come. “Hypothermia” exudes funereal and plaintive qualities in equal measure, whereas “Losing the Slippers” blazes with siren-like synthesizer patterns. Hausswolff's haunting vocal presence on “Grievance of a Young Girl” and “Grandma's Appearance” bolsters the songs' mystery-laden qualities, and the water-logged shudder with which her voice is presented in the latter setting only adds to the ethereal effect. For anyone unfamiliar with Ceremony, “The Joys of a New Year” is so similar in style to it that it could easily be imagined as a previously unreleased track from the sessions, and it's telling that of all the pieces on The Little Match Girl, it's this one that's the most powerful. So which album should the listener choose, the one by Hydras Dream or Hausswolff's? The answer is obvious: the best possible strategy is to acquire both.

April 2014