Two Great Pop Shows on Sunday | Bleader

Two Great Pop Shows on Sunday


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Susanna & the Magical Orchestra
  • Susanna & the Magical Orchestra
Because I was on vacation I missed the chance to write up two excellent Sunday shows in the Reader's print edition, but now that I'm back I want to highlight them in this space. Back in December 2008 extraordinary Norwegian vocalist Susanna Wallumrød performed solo at the Empty Bottle, delivering her refined, dolorous music with sparse piano accompaniment and guitar courtesy of Helge Sten (aka Deathprod); Cairo Gang guitarist and key Bonnie "Prince" Billy collaborator Emmett Kelly also sat in for a few tunes. On Sunday she makes her local debut (at Schubas) as Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, her project with fellow Norwegian Morten Qvenild—best known as keyboardist and leader of In the Country.

In both contexts Wallumrød sings with dazzling clarity and exquisite patience, shaping melodies with care and sensitivity and tightly controlling her emotional engagement with the material, but Qvenild's involvement makes for more varied and inventive instrumental backdrops. The project's third and latest album, last year's 3 (Rune Grammofon), includes original tunes by both members in addition to covers of songs by Rush and Roy Harper, all of them lush, gentle, and delicately beautiful. The record is placid and elegant on its surface, with Qvenild contributing anything from atmospheric drapery to sophisticated melodic counterpoint and guest musicians, including Sten and Mariam Wallentin of Wildbirds & Peacedrums, adding extra depth. But Wallumrød's voice is always the focal point, providing an emotional gravitas that belies the music's fragility. I've seen her perform a couple of times now, and as much as I enjoy the recordings, only in a live setting does her solemn presence register at full power.

Below you can check out "Palpatine's Dream," a tune from 3:

Liam Hayes
  • Liam Hayes
Chicagoan Liam Hayes, for two decades one of the most mercurial and elusive figures on the local scene, makes a different kind of rarefied pop music with his long-running project Plush. On Sunday night at the Hideout he finishes a three-week residency—an unusual arrangement to be sure for this normally reclusive musician. The shows have been in support of the group's latest album, Bright Penny (Broken Horse), a typically immaculate, beautifully sculpted collection of pop songs injected with blue-eyed soul. As with Plush's previous album, Fed, the lush arrangements feature contributions from an impressive roster of A-list guest musicians, including Chicago soul vets like drummer Morris Jennings and bassist Bernard Reed, younger heavies like guitarists Jeff Parker and Chris Bruce, and top-flight horn players like Bill McFarland, Hank Ford, and Willie Woods.

Yet as vibrant as the arrangements are, they serve mostly to cradle Hayes's crystalline vocals (he's long had one of the finest falsettos around) and catchy melodies. He's never been remotely interested in contemporary trends, and though rock, soul, and pop from 60s are his obvious inspirations, the record doesn't sound like a retro exercise either. Bright Penny was in regular rotation on my recent vacation, and by now it's ingrained in my brain—the strength of his songs and the classic timelessness of the music make me feel as though it's a record I grew up with. Sunday's show will feature a nine-piece band: Hayes, Jennings on drums, Reed on bass, Nashville mainstay Jimmy Matt Rowland on piano, Steve Gerlach on guitar, and a three-piece horn section put together by trombonist Willie Woods (formerly of the Pharoahs).

Below you can hear one of my favorite tracks, the deeply grooving "Look Up, Look Down":

Today's playlist:

David Grubbs, Hybrid Song Box.4 (Blue Chopsticks)
Charles Evans, The King of All Instruments (Hot Cup)
Yosuke Yamashita Trio, Tenshi No Koukotsu (Ultra Vybe)
John Martyn, Solid Air (Island)
Various artists, Shir Hodu: Jewish Song From Bombay of the 30s (Renair)

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