Sometimes it seems like you can't go a week without bumping into a new record that draws inspiration, ideas, or sounds from the trippy folk of the late 60s and early 70s. On its surface The Sea
(Rune Grammofon), the stunning debut album by Oslo's Phaedra
(aka Ingvild Langgård), certainly seems to qualify, but it only takes a bit of careful listening to realize that it carves out its own space. It's not very often that I grope fruitlessly for a record's possible musical antecedents, but The Sea
has kept me guessing for months—and in my book, that's high praise. I've posted a track after the jump; if you can hear any clear influences or points of comparison, I'd love to hear from you.
Just about every review I've read of the record mentions another great female singer on Rune Grammofon, Susanna Wallumrød (Susanna & the Magical Orchestra), and though both she and Langgård both have gorgeous voices and make music that's almost as quiet as it is gentle, the similarities kind of end there. Some reviews bring up Nico, Sandy Denny, Vashti Bunyan, and Kate Bush, and while I can understand those points of reference, they don't get at the specific, peculiar beauty of Phaedra either. Langgård, a graduate of the Oslo National Academy of the Arts who's worked previously in film, photography, and installation work, got help on The Sea from Frode Jacobsen of popular Norwegian rock band Madrugada. The elaborate but generously spacious arrangements are distinguished by their delicacy, and the sound palette reaches far beyond folk.
There's no Renaissance-era instrumentation (and early music is a black hole in my musical knowledge), but that's what I kept thinking of when I listened to The Sea
, even though Langgård's beautiful melodies—beneath her mannered, old-fashioned delivery—are undeniably modern. Some of the resonance in the instrumental harmonies recalls a similar quality in Scandinavian folk (a combination of note-bending instruments like harmonium, accordion, musical saw, violin, viola, clarinet, and saxophone keeps things sounding meditatively liquid), but otherwise there's nothing particularly Nordic about the record. There are traces of pop, rock, soul, and country, but none of these elements presents itself as more than a fleeting murmur within a lush symphony. The best comparison I can come up with is to the soundtrack Nino Rota
created for Franco Zeffirelli
's version of Romeo and Juliet
, particularly in the way period ideas were hybridized with modern melodic motifs.
Of course, even the Rota is inadequate as a reference point, but does it really matter? This is one of the year's loveliest, most striking albums, unlike anything I've heard in years. And The Sea is the first in a planned trilogy of albums—bring 'em on. Below you can check out the arresting opening track.
Phaedra: "Death Will Come":
Fred Hersch Trio, Whirl (Palmetto)
Ben Monder and Bill McHenry, Bloom (Sunnyside)
Zola Jesus, Stridulum (Sacred Bones)
Cibelle, Las Venus Resort Palace Hotel (Crammed Discs)
Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch, What Is Known (Clean Feed)