When you realize how small the population of Iceland is and how many impressive musicians have emerged from the country, you have to wonder what’s in the water. Do they have some sort of battle royale where musical artists compete to spread their work across the globe so that only the best emerge? It’s not as if they’re cranking out disposable pop acts. Looking at the most commercially successful acts, you’ve got BjÃ¶rk, Sigur Rós, Emiliana Torrini, and mÃºm. Not exactly generic boy bands.
For that reason, I approached Ã“lÃ¶f Arnalds‘ debut LP with high hopes but had a bit of anxiety in the back of my mind. Surely Iceland would eventually screw up and let a weakling stumble into our sights. Plus, ViÃ° Og ViÃ° was released in 2006, yet it’s just now hitting American shelves. Either it’s one of those albums you ache to finally get in your hands or it should’ve stayed locked away. Turns out ViÃ° Og ViÃ° was worth the wait.
Arnalds’ voice follows in the footsteps of American folk and country artists such as Joni Mitchell or Emmylou Harris. At times she even channels British legend Kate Bush, as you can hear in “Klara”, a soft tune that could pass for a pastoral lullaby. Undoubtedly, such comparisons mean her vocals are not for everyone. Although that might be true for many artists, it’s probably more relevant when you don’t understand the lyrics, and most listeners outside of Iceland probably don’t. Much like listening to a Sigur Rós album, the pleasure of what you hear becomes the entire experience rather than the lyrical content. “Klara” and most of the tracks rely solely on an acoustic guitar and intimate production. Arnalds sounds as if she and her musicians are trapped in a small box with a microphone so that every vocal inflection and bit of guitar finger work is audible.
Album highlight “Vittu Af Mér” serves as the best example of what makes Arnalds compelling. Set against sparse guitar and nearly inaudible keyboard, her voice quavers as if each word is forcing its way out of her throat. Each line buckles with emotion, yet somehow her delivery feels effortless. Arnalds sounds like a woman aching for her lover to return and you’ve stumbled upon her singing alone in her house. Nothing about the track sounds precious or ostentatious. It is delivered exactly as it needs to be, and that can be said for the rest of the LP.
Although this album is certainly Arnalds’ work, you can’t ignore the excellent production. Actually, you could ignore it because it’s not flashy. The songs all sound as if they were recorded in one session and received little to no tinkering. Of course that’s not true, and Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson deserves credit for recognizing that production doesn’t need to be the focal point of an album. Perhaps because Sveinsson comes from a band that relies heavily on dynamic contrasts, he exhibits a keen understanding how powerful a whisper can be. In a sense, a whisper is the best way to describe ViÃ° Og ViÃ°. It sits there, forcing you to lean and listen. Fortunately, it’s more than worth the effort and was definitely worth the wait. Let’s hope the next album reaches our shores in a more timely manner.
“Englar og darer”