Susanna and the Magical Orchestra
Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt
Reviewed: 6 October, 2006
Venue: The Spitz, Old Spitalfields Market, London
The cover version has traditionally been held in low regard, seen variously as a practice tool for beginning musicians, vulgar entertainment at holiday resorts or a musical version of karaoke. Norwegian vocalist Susanna Wallumrød subverts these notions by – tenderly – claiming an unlikely collection of songs as her own.
Like Johnny Cash’s final recordings, where the words of others were wrenched, slowly and painfully, from his charred lungs, Wallumrød takes songs by such diverse artists as Scott Walker, Leonard Bernstein and Prince, slows them down, pares them back and, with her what-can-only-be-described-as ethereal voice, Susanna Wallumrød transforms them into some of the most affecting and direct ‘pop’ music you’re likely to hear.
The Magical Orchestra is Morten Qvenild, who accompanies Wallumrød with sparse collections of notes on keyboards, harmonium and autoharp. From the small town of Konsberg, the duo have released two critically acclaimed albums on seminal Norwegian label Rune Grammofon, famed, like present-day Norway, for a fluid and fearless hybridization of styles. “List of Lights and Buoys”, the duo’s 2004 debut, features original material alongside the work of others; this year’s “Melody Mountain” is all covers. Stylistically, they hover somewhere between folk, jazz and ambient electronica, with Wallumrød’s voice resembling, if anything, a less-mannered Bjørk.
On this occasion, as Wallumrød and Qvenild graced the central dais of the Spitz to welcoming applause, I was struck by their visual appropriation of country and western imagery: Qvenild in jeans, cowboy shirt and bold moustache, Wallumrød wearing a commanding snow-white dress and 1960s’ hair-do – a Nordic Tammy Wynette. They opened with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, a hit of sorts from their first album; this was well calculated and equally well received. Where Parton’s words of insecurity, infidelity and unrequited love seem hackneyed Country cliché, here they became the very essence of desperation. Delivered at a snail’s pace, Wallumrød gasped the lines as though already defeated, reaching extreme highs towards the ending. The toy-piano-like accompaniment from Qvenild seemed equally hopeless, the cracked electronic tones its dying breaths. The following “Sweet Devil” was slightly edgier, Qvenild adding cushioned percussion patterns to his fairground organ spirals.
The remainder of the concert followed this spartan, moody, somnambulent formula, and the audience loved it. Indeed, rarely have I experienced such a rapport between artist and audience established so quickly. “Crazy, Crazy Nights” by seventies’ rock supergroup Kiss became a fragile thing of beauty, here involving plucked and strummed autoharp, and AC/DC’s “Its a Long Way to the Top” received similar treatment with clunky keyboard blocks.
Qvenild’s ability to combine petite instrumental gestures with synthesizer tones, which accentuate their plasticity, lend extra weight to Wallumrød’s haunting voice. One might assume that almost any song could become beautiful given the ‘Susanna’ treatment, but that would deny the songwriters their due. For what Susanna and the Magical Orchestra do is to highlight what powerful songs these actually are and, possibly, to show how they should best be performed.
That the duo’s strongest performance here was their own “Believer”, an intensely moving song detailing a relationship destroyed by one party’s lack of faith, is testament not just to their amazing performance abilities but to their song-writing skills.