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Ólöf Arnald's third full-length album (and her first solely in English), Sudden Elevation provides many wistful moments and solemn parades through the slings and arrows of romance. And yet the sparse musical minimalism that should underscore the majesty of her melodies instead shows them to totter between realizing doing so and being merely passable.
Sudden Elevation walks to the path of folk music as historical document, be it of the last 30 years or the fifteenth century. When Ólöf decides to turn through the centuries there's magic; guitar lines descend and resonate with cadences seldom heard and compositions march with a monastic solemnity that demands deference.
'Return Again' could have been performed in the presence of Henry VIII and would have beguiled the court. The sparse instrumentation lilts beautifully and Ólöf's voice rings with sadness. Her melodies bobble with insecurity and the chorus refrain is a touching lament for a lover never present. Soft violins play counterpoint to her exasperation with stirring purpose, casting a sad sad spell.
This is followed by the Joni Mitchell-style 12-string twang of 'Treat Her Kindly' where these very same musical components that struck so poignantly in 'Return Again' feel insignificant, frivolous and ineffective. There's nothing that connects and unsurprisingly nothing that can touch the green and browns of California and the Laurel Canyon that Mitchell summoned.
But if Arnald’s MO is not to merely signpost the past and instead to provide a sound, an approach or a story that feels contemporaneous, she's not accomplished it on this album.
But when Arnald is at her best, as in ‘A Little Grim’, she carries the history of her influences with a modern gusto. Personal stories are summoned from far within the teller’s past; uncomfortable in their genesis yet retold with pride of the wisdom and emotional depth they bestowed. “It’s all a little grim” Arnald opens, “I know it may sound familiar/I find myself in your place”. Under her a guitar plucks lethargically; the choruses are hazy dreams that drift from the dilemma and angelic harmonies are brief moments of hope before the verses cloud over once more. In ‘Numbers And Names’ she sprites through fields of soft strums and nothing else; everything is upward facing, carefree, satisfying.
Yet for three very fine compositions there is too much pink-plonk that might only grab you in a live setting, where her presence and downward gaze can add a million colours and motions. But this record is not the right stage for her kaleidoscope of sadness and hope. On this record it’s all too common for the songs to merely float by, neither enticing you to pursue nor burdening you into reflection, which is a shame as Ólöf is more than capable of writing stunning songs.
Listen to the album