wears the trousers magazine

susanna & the magical orchestra: 3 (2009)


Susanna & The Magical Orchestra
3 ••••
Rune Grammofon

It’s not without some irony that the new album from Norwegian duo Susanna & The Magical Orchestra shares its name with Nouvelle Vague’s most recent release. With their fastidiously conceived 2006 covers album Melody Mountain, Susanna Wallumrød and Morten Qvenild positioned themselves as the bedsit hipster equivalent to Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux’s amorphous creation, swapping out the Gallic-by-way-of-the-Caribbean sultriness for a precise yet languorous gloom that confirmed Wallumrød as an interpretive vocalist of considerable skill. Three years and two Wallumrød solo albums on, the similarities to Nouvelle Vague begin and end with the title of this latest effort, a mostly original collection that pulses with ambient sorrow and techno-dystopian tension.

If it seems like business as usual from the opening bars of ‘Recall’, a touch of AutoTune soon creeps into Wallumrød’s voice as the sole concession to the pageantry of sci fi, while a propulsive break in the final third thrusts Madrugada’s Erland Dahlen into the mix, his drumming crisp and colossal like the distinctive traps that introduce Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds Of Love’. Wallumrød is haunted in her own way, her elongated refrain of “Where did we go wrong?” escalating into a magnetising rally cry. “Calling for a rescue squad / calling for a bed of solutions,” declares a chorus of Susannas, the salvation of remembrance at hand. ‘Guiding Star’ ups the ultramodern elements for a repetitive, churchy meditation seemingly about the influence of a higher power who is “One step aside of the human league”, while the comparatively delicate ‘Game’ contests that “No one controls the heart game”.

Towering ominously over the tracklist is the Qvenild-penned lead single ‘Palpatine’s Dream’, a glittering obelisk of retrofuturist glory that geeks out on its ‘Star Wars’ reference with shooting-star FX and cleverly rendered guitars that burble like aquatic 8-bit samples. Wallumrød’s luminous vocal rises and falls over Qvenild’s stalking synth lines, conveying the mood of the disaffected, questioning lyrics with dazzling skill, while backing vocals from Mariam Wallentin of Wildbirds & Peacedrums and Wallumrød’s brother Fredrik augment the icy sonic variegation to make it the fullest sounding track on the album by far. It’s a sharp contrast indeed as the album shifts into the first of its two covers, ‘Another Day’, a heartbreaking piano ballad originally by folk-rock legend Roy Harper. While this version doesn’t quite reach the levels of emotional devastation that Elizabeth Fraser achieved on This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears, or even the famous Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel duet, Wallumrød’s grace lends the song a bittersweet elegance that’s hard to forget.

The other cover, a surprisingly profound and powerful version of Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’, is menacingly brilliant too, but the best tracks in the album’s second half are Wallumrød and Qvenild’s own. ‘Deer Eyed Lady’ is a magical essay that positively twinkles with refinement, Wallumrød’s vocals arcing sublimely over some vaguely psychedelic guitar work, while the other Qvenild-penned track ‘Come On’ features what is perhaps the album’s best lyric. “Live life in elastic moods / sit tight through the spastic grooves,” croons Wallumrød over a melody recalling classic Disney moments but resists the temptation to over egg the pudding with sickly strings. Wallumrød’s songwriting more than holds its own, too, with the stunning ‘Someday’, an alternative torch song that doubles as a lost intergalactic transmission, voiced through the buzz and the static by a sentient untold. Only the glacially slow piano-led ‘Lost’ seems a little out of place here, a little too effortless, despite some nicely dissonant playing. 

That such a moving, well-heeled album has been lumbered with a title as stale as 3 is a shame in many ways, but when the most pressing complaint is such a superficial one, you know you’re on to something pretty special. Wallumrød and Qvenild have outdone themselves with this exquisitely consistent and imaginative record that should see the perception of Susanna & The Magical Orchestra as primarily a covers band banished to an alternative reality. Approaching their tenth year as a unit, they’ve never sounded more original or inspired.

Alan Pedder
UK release date: 24/08/09; www.myspace.com/susannamagical


‘Palpatine’s Dream’


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