Affecting in Any Language
In 2007, Ólöf Arnalds released her debut album Vid Og Vid to great acclaim in Iceland, where she is an active member of the folk and rock scene. Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós produced the album, which, according to her label, 12 Tónar, was chosen as record of the year by the country’s largest daily newspaper. If Vid Og Vid, which roughly translates as “Now and Then,” is only now reaching our shores, that’s because it arrives here on its own uncompromising terms: Arnalds sings all ten tracks in her native tongue and accompanies herself on guitar and charango, a ten-stringed lute that sounds like a ukulele.
Arnald’s voice, a clear, affecting soprano, is the primary instrument on display. On “Klara,” a brief, sprightly tune, her voice is bright and joyful. Elsewhere, her cooing and keening seduce listeners. Although the lyrics are indecipherable, the sweet “Ooh, ooh, oohs” on “Englar og Dárar” and the title track’s “La, la, las” amply demonstrate that music is a universal language.
Occasionally trumpet, violin, acoustic bass, and what sounds like a harmonium appear unobtrusively in the background, offering momentary shade and color to Arnalds’ voice before quietly receding. On “Orfeus og Evridís,” a cover of Megas, the enfant terrible turned patriarch of Icelandic rock and roll, a trumpeter quietly accompanies Arnalds, fleshing out the tune but never drowning out her voice.
Overall, Arnalds should appeal to listeners who enjoy freak-folkers like Joanna Newsom, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole this former classical music student. YouTube clips of Arnalds singing “That Lucky Old Sun” and John Prine’s “We’re Not the Jet Set” reveal a playful, confident, intelligent musician comfortably inhabiting another country’s popular music. If Arnalds put her mind to it, she could probably even swing some of Billie Holiday’s signature songs.
Arnalds’ next record is due out this spring. Music lovers can only hope it reaches America faster than her debut.