Early Spring. Harshness vanished. A sudden softness has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey. Little rivulets of water changed their singing accents. (R.M. Rilke) And while rain pattered against the sidewalks outside, in the dimly-lit 9:30 Club, folk musicians Ólöf Arnalds and José González took the sold-out crowd hopscotching across landscapes and languages.
Icelandic singer/songwriter Ólöf Arnalds played a solo opening set structured around finger-picked guitar. Arnalds’ lyrics alternate between her native tongue and English, her brilliant trill conjuring an otherworldly landscape. Björk describes Arnalds’ voice as “something between a child and an old woman,” and there is indeed a hybrid, unsettling-yet-beguiling quality to Arnalds’ style. Her vocals swirl in dizzying heights, but never sound shrill. Her tone is beautifully saturated and her diction crisp, with consonants taking on a subtle rhythmic, percussive effect.
Arnalds’ songcraft has evolved through the course of four EPs, from the guitar-driven debut album Við Og Við (“Now and Then”) (2006), to Innundir Skinni (“Under the Skin”) (2009), with its carefully-woven textures of charango and horn-violin, and Sudden Elevation, a harmonies-rich, all-English album (2013). Arnalds’ latest album, Palme (One Little Indian, 2014), remains ethereal while shifting from an acoustic approach in favor of a broader palette of synthetic sounds. Take “Hypnose,” for instance — Arnalds’ bass-playing was transformed into an electro-thrum by collaborator Gunnar Tynes (of experimental music group múm). If Joanna Newsom were an elf humming beneath Northern Lights, I think it would sound like this sort of quirky magic.
A friend once remarked that there is something unmistakably Icelandic about Icelandic music. For all its circularity, the statement rings true – this is the land that brought us Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men. Something about the supercharged natural splendor seems to inspire a musical Narnia where the human and more-than-human coexist.
Arnalds ended her set by setting the guitar to one side and reciting an Icelandic poem about spring. Her spell cast, she beamed at the crowd and thanked fellow Nordic music-maker José González for bringing her along on tour.
As Arnalds welcomed spring, José González reminded us of the ephemerality of it all. Opening with “Afterglow” from his new record, Vestiges & Claws (Mute, 2015), González launched into a metaphysical rumination over hushed vocals and sparse verse: All of this will be gone someday/ You and me and everyone / The memories and traces, and for the afterglow. González hails from Sweden. His family fled Argentina in 1976 after a military junta seized power in the “Dirty War” that introduced the term los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) to the world. That background of displacement and cultural crossings has influenced his music. González grew up listening to Latin folk and pop, and though his music is categorized as the sort of melancholic folk that fits alongside Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, and Bon Iver, he cites Brazil’s João Gilberto and Argentina’s Mercedes Sosa as sources of inspiration (CNN, NPR interview).
Against a silhouette of mountains and nebula, half-hidden in blue fog, González played to an entranced crowd. “With the Ink of a Ghost,” he took us traveling: Trudging through the mist, following the creeks, erasing dim lines on the list / Eager to arrive, leaving footprints in the clay / Reading rocks and vines, telling indigo from grey.
González sings with a meditative air, brows furrowed except when the applause and hollered song names accompanying opening strums brought a warm smile to his face as he glanced out at the audience. For all the muted delicacy of the songs, the night never dragged – there was lively percussion from congas and handclaps, and a woodwind flitted in and out amidst soft plinks from a xylophone. Though the lyrics of Vestiges & Claws wrestle with shadows, González’s powerful, but restrained tenor provides a comforting guide in the dark. “Every Age” has a steady assuredness about it, the kick drum undergirding the sparse guitar, both framed by negative space. The cycles of sound and silence mimic the cycles of life and death that are the subject of the song: Every age has its turn / Every branch of the tree has to learn / Learn to grow, find its way / Make the best of this short-lived stay.
When I shoot a show, I often go alone because I’m terrible company, ducking in and out of the photo pit and scribbling notes in my Moleskine. Before this show, I intermittently chatted with fellow concert-goers and perused the Fall 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, which explores the idea of time. The collection of words and images turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to an evening of music circling around that slippery subject, as in Open Book: Well I’ve got promises to keep / Like the carrying of all the land upon my feet, Each time I fall / Every now and then in dreams / By the river ‘neath our tree / Leaves in yellow, red and brown.
And so I’ll close with an excerpt from Lapham’s – a piece by Jay Griffiths that has echoed in my mind, along with the music of Arnalds and González, since the night of the show:
Once, humans were surrounded by wild time and the stretch of time was everlasting, undefined, unenclosed, unnamed, uncharted – and into this eternity mankind was dotted, pitiful with our perplexed pocket watches and our brief lives, plotting our little watches of hours hard by the great eternities of wild time. Then we began to chart time, to clock it, plot it, measure and mark it, buy and sell it. As wilderness and humanity changed places, so too have wild time and mankind now swapped positions.
Grab Ólöf Arnalds’ latest album here (CD & vinyl / iTunes) and José González’s here (CD & vinyl / iTunes). They’re currently on tour in the United States and Canada (and in Europe starting late May).
You should catch them live because they are, quite simply, magical – but also because music re-centers and re-wilds a part of us. We’ve built a world in which there is a market in futures, an amnesia about the past, and an impulse to carve the present into tweets and Snaps. In the midst of this sped-up, chopped-up madness, music helps us focus on each note gliding into the next, each verse unfolding – it lets us experience time in polyrhythms and changeable phrases rather than by the dictates of Captain Clock. In his NPR interview, González stated: “There are many songs where I think about the traces or the memories that people leave.” And from that night at the 9:30 Club, we walked away with traces of each others’ lives in our own, our ghosts imprinted in that space, waiting for our return.
Thank you to Brendan (Chart Room Media) and Tones & JT (One Little Indian Records) for the photo pass – much appreciated!