MUSIC: Väsen


Swedish folk has never scored big in the exotic-pop marketplace--mainly because, until now, there hasn't been all that much of it offered up for globetrotter consumption, but also because, on paper, it doesn't really seem all that exotic. Unlike the synthetic studio sheen of foreign pop from other, warmer places--zouk from Antilles, or soukous from Zaire, or, for that matter, reggae--Swede-folk's dusky, fiddle-driven, and homespun style can seem downright Midwestern. And yeah, I know why landlocked towheads hear it that way (I'm not an idiot). But that prejudice still doesn't explain away the fact that the progressive folk coming out of Scandinavia right now can be heard by any head as more exotic and weirder-sounding than most other weird-sounding exotic pop out there.

Väsen is the neotraditional mainstay in a new-jack Swede folk scene that includes two frustratingly sexy, heavy-metalish prog-rock bands, Hoven Droven and Garmarna, and a two-woman team, Hedningarna, whose Swede-folk is so irreverent it's actually from Finland. A wonderful 70-plus-minute retrospective released earlier this year pieced together six years' worth of torpid, droning, melodically complex, and rhythmically strident instrumental music that rolled with lyricless flow on nothing but Roger Tallroth's guitar, Mikeal Marin's fiddle, and "star" Olav Johannson's nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle).

Whirled's own lyricless flow rides on André Ferrari's inspired percussion, which is somehow minimal and busy enough to give pop-culturally biased rockists the grooves we demand. The resulting music is gorgeous. The shape-shifting "Nitti Pomfritti," the almost funk-like guitar lead in "Spanons Vindaloo," and the just-plain hooky "Borjar du Fatta" and "Tartulingen" all bump around its music's traditionally inscribed boundaries like first-rate pomo pop. Don't get me wrong--it isn't Stereolab. And despite concerted charisma (and hooks!), you can bet these conservatory rats aren't gunning for the Cardigans' market share either. These are traditionalists with pomo pop sense--not pomo popsters mucking around with traditions. In other words, you can hear them loving music and the art of making it. How often do you hear that in the Cardigans?

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