(SusannaSonata, out Fri 9 Feb 2018)
Norwegian singer Susanna Wallumrød (with her Magical Orchestra) was making tender, slow-paced cover versions back in the days before every second TV ad had someone breathily ruining a song you once loved. These days she’s sans “orchestra” (in reality, keyboard player Morten Qvenild), and onto album number 12, on which she’s backed by Swiss baroque harp player Giovanna Pessi, accordionist Ida Løvli Hidle and fiddle player Tuva Syvertsen.
Despite the style, Go Dig My Grave is work of serious artistic intent, rather than musical wallpaper for use on ads and chillout playlists. It has more in common with jazz singers interpreting a songbook, than chart wannabes cashing in with some easy wins. For a start, things are fairly dark here. “I am attracted to the sad songs,” she explains by way of stating the obvious, and there are plenty of those. Melancholic English and American folk song sits alongside work by Lou Reed and Joy Division.
In their own right, these interpretations work very well, albeit perhaps with less distinctiveness than their creator’s publicists lay claim to. Certain song choices are head-scratchers, though. Music’s great interpreters have already firmly planted their flag in some of them. Whether Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley or even Elkie Brooks, there’ll be a version of Lilac Wine that jerks your tears harder. There’s also little more needs saying on Reed’s Perfect Day. Even the title track, a traditional broadside ballad, suffers a little from this. It’s very good minimalist miserabilism, but when you’ve heard how radically it can be reworked (under its traditional title, The Butcher Boy) by Lambchop, it’s not clear how much this adds to traditional folk versions.
For good reason, the less obvious the song choice, the better. Purcell doesn’t fetch up in popular music very often, so the baroque cadences of his Cold Song make an interesting listen. Willow Song weaves a fragile path back through the ages. The traditional Rye Whiskey is well done, although if you’re going to sing “if I don’t get rye whiskey I surely will die”, it helps if you sound like you actually would. Susanna is no Shane McGowan in that regard. Freight Train is a lovely thing that understandably doesn’t have the poignancy of Elizabeth Cotten’s original, but nor does it aim to.
The folk songs therefore outplay the contemporary numbers, with one exception. Wilderness, not an obvious Joy Division number to cover (she’s already done that, very well) is transformed. It’s identifiably their melody, but with mediaeval weirdness taking the place of industrial clank.
Given how successful the trad numbers work though, it’s a wonder she couldn’t find a couple more to obviate the need for the likes of Perfect Day. Nonetheless, Go Dig My Grave makes for a pleasant, if sombre, Sunday afternoon listen.