By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Songs from 63°; North
When Emma Härdelin fronts the Swedish roots group Garmarna she stands stock-still at center stage and sings in a clean, pure voice about the demons and mountain trolls of Swedish myth while aural chaos swirls behind her: electric fiddles and amped-up hurdy-gurdies, at speeds no polka band would recognize.
When Härdelin sings with the Swedish roots group Triakel, she sings cleanly and purely about demons, trolls, and infidelity, backed by an acoustic fiddle and a ghostly harmonium, in complex but bare-bones arrangements.
And yet both bands clearly inhabit the same Nordic roots revival championed in this country by the Twin Cities label Northside Records. For about a decade and a half, young Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian musicians have been picking up their fiddles and nyckelharpas (a Swedish instrument with both keys and strings) and digging up old tunes to play on them. Some groups, such as Garmarna and Hoven Droven, crank it up and play for the mosh pits. Others, like Triakel, Hedningarna, and Väsen play it unplugged but unmistakably modern.
This fall, Northside has released a trio of new records that make the most of the acoustic possibilities of Northern roots. All three of Triakel's members let out their more moshable musical urges in other bands, Härdelin in Garmarna and instrumentalists Kjell-Erik Eriksson and Janne Strömstedt in the hard-driving Hoven Droven. What's left for Triakel is sweet and dark at the same time, the soft, pure sound of strings, harmoniums, and vocals often out of sync with the bleak themes of Swedish folk songs.
On their latest album, Songs from 63 North, Triakel mines several hundred years of folk songs from the Jämtland region of Sweden, layering interpretations from generations of singers. The melodies are inescapably hummable, especially the deceptively light "Älskaren i gluggen ("The Lover at the Window," about a young wife's infidelity) and "Granner och Vänner" ("Friends and Neighbors," about a bride's suicide).
Wimme Saari, a Sámi singer from Lapland, has recorded and performed his techno-jolted joik for a decade. Joik is often translated as "yodeling" or "chant," but neither captures the sound of Wimme's voice as it reaches deep and ancient depths, moving fluidly from tone to tone at registers so low you seem to feel every individual vibration. He sings in Sámi, a language related to Finnish and Estonian and spoken by only about 25,000 people, but it hardly matters, since the odd singing style (like particularly melodic gargling) would make individual words barely discernible for speakers of any language.
For his latest album, Solo, he drops the backup band and the techno beats of his earlier efforts. Here it's just him, his remarkable voice, and centuries of tradition. The 34 short tracks all seem to blend together until you hit "Áhcci" ("Father"). Wimme's voice drops another octave and the entire vocal line blends into one long syllable. The last eight tracks, biblical psalms in Sámi, all have more traditional but no less haunting melodies.
The Swedish instrumental trio Väsen have been playing together for 15 years, and jam like jazz musicians more than Frankie Yankovic. This makes even a studio album like the new Keyed Up sound as fresh and inviting as a live concert. Keyed Up includes all new material (13 polkas, a waltz, and a jig) that borrow from one another--a melody line repeated here, a bridge there--just enough to make the album feel cohesive without being repetitive.
Mikael Marin's energetic lead fiddle, backed by guitar and nyckelharpa, is clear and confident, as personable as any singer. You've probably never had a polka caught in your head before. Just wait until you have can't stop humming--even if you can't pronounce--the Björkberg polska.