Susanna: Flower of Evil
Rune Grammofon

Flower Of Evil is hardly the first time Susanna Karolina Wallumrød has lent her exquisite interpretive skills to covers—Dolly Parton's “Jolene” got a mesmerizing workout on List of Lights and Buoys (the acclaimed debut album by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra) and 2006's Melody Mountain devoted itself entirely to covers (including arresting takes on AC/DC's “It's a Long Way to the Top” and Kiss's “Crazy, Crazy Nights”). Ably assisted by In the Country's Pål Hausken (drums, percussion, vibraphone, vocals) and, as before, producer Deathprod (aka Helge Sten, also on guitar), Wallumrød again shows herself to be the Queen of the Slow Tempo in reinventions of songs by Thin Lizzy, Sandy Denny, Black Sabbath, Nico, Lou Reed, Abba, and others.

The cliché definitely holds true in Wallumrød's case: were she to sing the phone book, the results would most certainly still captivate. On her second solo album, every quivering whisper and agile leap into the upper register has the power to entrance, and her indelible voice exudes a crystal clarity that may remind listeners of a particular age of Renaissance singer Annie Haslam. Flower Of Evil includes twelve covers—some of them buried treasures (Prince's “Dance On” from Lovesexy gets a second life, and Black Sabbath's “Changes” and Lou Reed's “Vicious” are resurrected from Vol. 4 and Transformer respectively)—and two equally sublime Wallumrød originals, the beautiful “Wild is the Will” and “Goodbye,” that more than hold their own amidst such esteemed company. Bonnie “Prince” Billy guests on two songs (Thin Lizzy's “Jailbreak” and “Without You”) and though his presence is hardly off-putting, she's hardly in need of support in the singing department; if anything, Hausken's vocal presence proves a more satisfying complement in the way it subtly shadows her singing. That she executes such exceptional control throughout is even more apparent when the restrained accompaniment exposes her so nakedly; “Jailbreak,” for example, includes little more than piano, drum accents, and atmospheric guitar shadings, while “Changes” resembles a laid-back, after-hours session recorded with the club doors locked and Wallumrød and Hausken attempting a first run-through with relaxed piano-and-drum accompaniment.

Some choices will resonate more welcomingly than others, depending on one's listening history; though the treatment is as lovely as anything else on the album, I could certainly live the rest of my days without hearing “Without You” again, having heard the Nilsson version a few too many thousand times already. Though each song is distinctive for one reason or another, certain ones do stand out. The oft-covered Sandy Denny (Strawbs, Fairport Convention) ballad “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” receives an exceptionally graceful reading, as do Will Oldham's stirring “Joy and Jubilee” and Roy Harper's magisterial “Forever.” The helplessness expressed so palpably in “Can't Shake Loose” (a 1983 song Russ Ballard wrote for Abba's Agnetha Faltskog's solo Wrap Your Arms Around Me) turns it into a suicidal dirge, while Tom Petty's “Don't Come Around Here No More” similarly becomes a desperate plea by a victim of abuse. One of the most dramatic reinventions comes at album's end when her haunting take on “Lay All Your Love On Me” imbues the Abba original with an emotional rawness and depth Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus might never have imagined possible.

January 2009