Susanna and the Magical Orchestra: Melody Mountain
Rune Grammofon

The standout song on List of Lights and Buoys, the acclaimed debut album by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra (singer Susanna Karolina Wallumrød and keyboard player Morten Qvenild, former member of Jaga Jazzist and Shining and current member of In The Country), remains the deeply emotive re-imagining of Dolly Parton's “Jolene”; two years after its release, Wallumrød's reading remains soul-stirring, even wrenching. It's not wholly surprising, then, that the duo's new release, Melody Mountain, extends the concept to a full album, with ten covers of songs by artists like Sandy Denny (“Fotheringay”), Bob Dylan (“Don't Think Twice, It's All Right”), Scott Walker (“It's Raining Today”), and Leonard Cohen, especially when some of the songs have been a part of the pair's live set for a while. What does surprise is that the artists covered includes Prince, AC/DC, Depeche Mode, and, yes, even Kiss. Surprising, too, are the selections: though the choice of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as a Joy Division cover isn't all that startling, covering Prince's “Condition of the Heart” (Around The World In A Day) is an inspired move.

Once again produced by Deathprod (Helge Sten), the new album is even more understated than the first and draws the listener in closer. Cohen's “Hallelujah” is given a quietly majestic rendering with Wallumrød's approach as free of bombast as could be imagined; how lovely too that the backing is limited to church organ, allowing the prayerful pleading in her voice to come forth most affectingly. The Prince cover likewise impresses, especially with its skeletal arrangement restricted to vocal, piano, and strings (the latter so soft you could miss them). The group's stripped-down treatment of AC/DC's “It's a Long Way to the Top” is jarring but also an album standout, with the funereal tempo and harpsichord giving the song dramatic, even epic character.

The restrained and uncluttered approach enables one to hear every inflection and savour every graceful swoop in Wallumrød's delivery; the down side is that a banal lyric like “If life is a radio, turn up to ten” (in Kiss's “Crazy, Crazy Nights”) is now even more clearly audible than in the original. Furthermore, Melody Mountain's stylistic approach rarely changes, with each song given a reverential, typically somber ballad reading; some greater degree of deviation in tempo and energy would not have been unwelcome. Ultimately, though, Melody Mountain is more often than not haunting, especially in those moments when the duo so splendidly transforms a song like “Enjoy the Silence” into an entrancing lullaby.

September 2006