Iceland has another fine musical export to help boost its economy.
Chris Parkin 2009
While Ólöf (pronounced Oluff) Arnalds hasn’t endured anything like the 30-year wait Vashti Bunyan endured until the reappraisal of her lost classic, Just Another Diamond Day, it has taken more than two years for the Icelandic songstress’s own debut to be awarded a UK (and US) release.
Label issues aside – for there always are some – Bunyan’s album dawdled in obscurity for much the same reason that this by her modern-day kindred spirit has: Arnalds’ timid, autumnal folk has such an exquisite pallor and fragile heart that it’ll make you reach for a protective dust sheet with which to wrap it in and tuck safely away.
Thankfully, though, it’s been brought carefully out of the vaults. And just in time, too. Although it precedes Arnalds’ upcoming second album Okidoki by just a few months, Við Og Við, produced by Sigur Rós’s Kjartan Sveinsson, is hewn from a very different time in Arnalds’ life. Similar in theme to Panda Bear’s harrowing Young Prayer, Arnalds went into the studio in 2006 following the death of her father in an attempt to both unleash her grief and capture the raw emotion of that healing process without veering into gauche melodrama (we’re looking askance at you, White Lies).
She does it wonderfully, too. Far less austere than Panda’s howling account, Arnalds’ is a sparse yet paw-soft collection that allows the sun, and her hopefulness, to warm the chilly loneliness of her songs. Throughout, the sometime Múm member picks prettily and insistently on Koto harp, lute and guitar, with accordion and trumpet weaving ghostly between each scrape of the fret-board and lilting melodies that tout an interest in folk music that reaches far beyond her own isle to Scotland, Japan and the Middle East.
The obvious references for such honest, unaffected melancholy are Bunyan and – thanks to a high, clear voice that gets confused for childish rather than alluringly guttural – Joanna Newsom, although there’s nothing stately or grandiose about Arnalds. In songs such as Klara, she plays and sings with a rich, comely earthiness rather than wrist-twirling, fairy-informed whimsy and, even without translation, these are wonderfully comforting songs.
With a soon-to-arrive second album (inspired, we’re told, by the emotional, melon-twisting experience of childbirth) it would seem Iceland has another fine export to help boost its economy.