Reviews of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra “Melody Mountain”
Instead of coasting along with expected, aesthetically linked updates, Melody Mountain’s oddball set list includes imaginative revisions: AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top”, backed by, among other things, cembalo, a baroque keyboard instrument; a simplified, back-porch incision of Prince’s “Condition of the Heart”; a Cat Powered ramble through Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. To the band’s credit, every choice, no matter how strange at first, ends up sounding real. They own each unironic, personalized revision; this isn’t some indulgent Gus Van Sant meta game. The honest sound could be a result of the pared-down, two-person lineup, coupled with the crystalline Deathprod production. Rather than lugging along some weepy string section, the “orchestra” is just one guy, ex-Jaga Jazzist and Shining member Morten Qvenild. His instrumental expertise and good taste lends intricately lush, deftly subtle keyboard/piano/church organ-based backdrops. More striking than the band’s minimalism are the pristine, unpolluted vocals of Susanna Karolina Wallumrød. A true talent in the vein of Chan Marshall and Mira Billotte, she sings like a Norwegian mountain stream, never over-enunciating or throwing in unnecessary trills.
Wallumrød and Qvenild manage to eat that same Joy Division classic for breakfast, like it’s no big deal, but how can anybody do that? This is the song that marks the cusp where all our modernist souls perch, right? Because don’t call this shit fragile. Qvenild’s music maybe, a collection of creature synths simply hiding in the underbrush, knowing how to get out of the way and rustle nervously and perfectly around Wallumrød’s voice, but that latter is a diamond bit drilling its way through sound and space to inscribe intricate designs on your sweating forehead. This stuff is difficult and glorious to listen to precisely because Wallumrød acts like it matters a lot, in the same way that Nina Simone would take just about anything in the ‘60s and ‘70s and reinterpret it as the most harrowingly personal tune ever. Emergency Ward (1972) is a lot of fun, yes, but watch how Simone transforms Harrison’s tunes into the most immediate and driven odes ever, that’s the kind of energy we’re talking about here, as SatMO exploits the thin quivers of Wallumrød’s voice into narrow and specific deliberations on humanity, breathing new life into songs that were already fully inflated. A different kind of breath, I guess, and that’s what a covers album should be, right? And yes, we did need another cover of “Hallelujah.”
This album is all covers of other musicians’ songs, but don’t let that keep you away. Susanna Wallumrod and Morten Qvenild make these songs completely their own, to the point that you may barely recognize the version you are already familiar with. Susanna’s beautiful, strong voice and Morten’s supportive orchestrations make you simultaneously want to listen to the original versions and never hear the originals again; they simultaneously make you think that the original must be even better than you remember, and that it can’t possibly be as good as this. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is rendered more spacious and warm than Joy Division’s version, removing the cynical tone and thus making it more a song of longing than of recognizing distance. But my favorite would have to be Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, which is given a freshness that allows you to feel how poignant the song must have been when it, too, was new. At first, I was sad that this album wasn’t an offering of new, unique music by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra themselves but, after listening only once, I’ve been won over. 9/10.
Foxy Digitalis (US)
This is exactly the kind of album I’ve been wishing one of the hot young things who enter and leave the revolving door of pop music would release. More often than not, I have to suffer through the bland pap regurgitated by singers like Joanna when their voices would be much better served offering up new takes on classic songs. Of course, now that Susanna and the Magical Orchestra have cover records on lockdown, the utility of those pretty faces has dropped yet another notch. Comprised of singer Susanna Karolina Wallumrod and multi-instrumentalist Morten Qvenild (of Jaga Jazzist and The Shining), the group’s gathers together ridiculously disparate territories of the pop landscape –Leonard Cohen, AC/DC, Joy Division, Bob Dylan and Prince, to name just a few– under the umbrella of bleak minimalism. All of the songs are stripped beyond their basest musical element leaving only the familiar vocal melodies to the gorgeous voice of Susanna and the task of creating a single musical instrument accompaniment to Qvenild. It’s hard to say which of the two is more of a marvel. Surely the project wouldn’t succeed nearly as well if Susanna’s pristine and fragile lilt wasn’t as inviting and sorrowful as it is, but who else besides Qvenild would dare select a dark, plodding harpsichord to sum up the musicality of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” or the staccato one-note keyboard stabs that drive Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”? With even light-hearted material taking a dark turn in the hands of these two, it’s understandable that Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” would be absolutely brutal. Susanna’s voice is at its mournful best here, pausing before sighing the chorus, while Qvenild’s murky keyboard ascension is barely audible at times, creeping like a foggy wave of memory. It’s nearly sacrilege to say that someone could do this song better than its writers, but this version is a very close second. It’s a rarity that I can say a covers records will likely find its way onto my top 10 list at the end of the year, but I have confidence in this one’s ability to resonate just as strong in eight months as it does today.
Susanna´s icily beautiful deadpan vocals are perfectly offset by Qvenild´s spectral backings; they don´t so much inhabit a song as mournfully haunt it.
Time Out (UK)
Wallumrød´s sweetly melancholic voice is offset by the spare instrumentation in reinventions hushed and funerally slow. 4/5.
Anyone tackling Joy Division´s Love Will Tear Us Apart better have a pretty good reason for doing so. Susanna Wallumrød does and her decelerated version, sung to Morten Qvenild´s doeful electric piano arpeggios and synths, is immensly moving, capturing a deep and aching sense of regret. Her voice is extraordinary, effortlessly wedding mountain-stream purity to a deep soulfulness. Kiss´s Crazy Nights is transformed into a fond memory of times past that is utterly convincing. And as one wonders what point there might be in yet another cover of Leonard Cohen´s Hallelujah, Susanna answers with a performance of such distilled tenderness it´ll stop you in your tracks. 4/5.
AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top turned wistful harpsichord-led ballad? Theoretically preposterous, this telling cover fills the road anthem with bittersweet regret. Elsewhere Susanna Wallumrod manages to make Leonard Cohen more melancholy yet and applies a gossamer touch to Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. Norway seems to be stuffed with wistful ice maidens, but Susanna is something special. 4/5.
The Times (UK)
A lovely new album of cover songs.
New York Times (US)
It´s simplicity works wonders in a sweet, sad, soothing way.
AC/DC´s It´s A Long Way To The Top sounds more like an epitaph rather than the valedictory original, while Kiss´s Crazy Crazy Nights is strictly morningafter. They even strech more mileage from Love Will Tear Us Apart, but it´s the virtually unknown These Days by Matt Burt that really catches the imagination, a gosthly reverie that more than matches Jolene for hair-prickling delight. 8/10.
Rock Sound (UK)
There is some audacious and beautiful work here. Not only have they taken on classically sad songs, but they´ve managed, without irony or archness, to find a lonely, tremulous heart to songs by Kiss and AC/DC. Prince´s Condition Of The Heart is my current favourite, but it´s all quite, quite gorgeous.
The Word (UK)
Otherworldly hymns of Nordic elegance. A beguiling and moving experience.
There is a seductively hypnotic power to her trancelike ability to hold a note, slowing a song´s narrative to a single moment of distillation against Qvenild´s mystical electronic washes.
This superb follow-up of oddball cover versions is deeper and richer still. Starting with Leonard Cohen´s Hallelujah and ending with Sandy Denny´s Fotheringay, via AC/DC, Prince, Dylan and Joy Division in between, Wallmrød´s pure, anguished voice and Qvenild´s spare settings create a spectral music of great beauty and passion. If you thought the best had already come and gone, try this. 5/5.
Independent On Sunday (UK)
Morten Qvenild´s minimalist electronic soundscapes form a suitably melancholic foil for Susanna´s pristine vocals, as some well-known songs get a Norwegian makeover. Their astonishing, heartbreaking deconstruction of Love Will Tear Us Apart could keep you awake for days.
Leeds Guide (UK)
Wonderful interpretations of other people´s songs is harder than it seems, but Norwegian singer Susanna pulls it off. AC/DC, Joy Division and Prince get the magic treatment.
ET Life (UK)
The duo tackles one of the most covered songs ever in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and fortunately their quiet, electric piano rendition is one of the most effective I’ve heard, cutting to the core of the emotional lyrics without playing it for laughs or simply running through the motions with a more faithful recreation. Such is the nature of all the pieces on the release, taking songs and stripping them to their very basics while focusing in on texture and of course the vocals themselves. In places, the results are absolutely stunning, as on the cover of KISS’s “Crazy, Crazy Nights,” where Qvenild turns the original guitar-romp into a stunning, fluttery backdrop of gorgeous swells while Wallumrød seems to bring out another side of the vocals. Likewise, the thumping electronic pop of Depeche Mode is turned into a creepy lullaby on the ultra-melancholy “Enjoy The Silence.” ”Melody Mountain” (with production by Deathprod) is one of the most gorgeously-produced albums I’ve heard in some time. Subtlety is the rule on the disc, and it really seeps into your being on good headphones or nice speakers.
It’s a fine line to toe without falling into kitsch and irony traps, but this set of songs, some predictable, some unpredictable, is mesmerizing all the way through.
Other Music (US)
It´s all about execution. Susanna almost breathes out her vocals rather than belting them, next to her Joni Mitchell and Beth Orton are barrelhouse mammas, and Qvenlid never uses more than one instrument when accompanying her. The performance of each song makes them seem as though they have been handed down from generation to generation. A remarkable record.
As for Melody Mountain, it only takes one listen to know that this is something special. The eclectic tracklisting includes AC/DC, Prince, Sandy Denny and the obligatory Bob Dylan but the real gems are elsewhere. It kicks off with a fractured, minimalist rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a song which is nearly always better when sung by other people. Clearly she is never going to match Jeff Buckley’s definitive version but the mere fact that she gets reasonably close is remarkable in itself. Another highlight is Depeche Mode’s Enjoy The Silence (which also features on the Tori Amos album) which actually makes me look back on my fellow Essex lads with a tad more fondness than I expected. But the absolute classics, the songs that should be on everybody’s iPod or Zen Creative or whatever, form one of the oddest and most effective couplings on any album I own. Track 5 is a heartbreaking and truly goosepimpling cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart. It takes your breath away. And it is followed, in a genius piece of sequencing, by Crazy Crazy Nights by Kiss. That is, and I know is this a terrible word to use but I can’t find another that does the job properly, awesome. Truly awesome. One of my albums of the year and I have only had it a few hours. Do yourselves a favour and check this out.
The Friday Project (UK)
One of the world’s most eclectic collections of noir-heavy pop oddballs and classics ever filtered through the cloud of smoke emanating from the ghost of Marlene Dietrich’s cigarette.
So the album is a novelty, yes, but there’s artistry at its core. Hearing Melody Mountain, you think less of where the songs came from and more about how they sound, right here, at this moment.
LA Weekly (US)
Susanna And The Magical Orchestra have coaxed something very special from their record collection, opening with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and successfully dodging the looming shadow of Buckley to make it their own. Relying on Wallumrod’s crystalline vocals and the merest hint of organ, ‘Hallelujah’ is the kind of song which can’t fail to elicit an emotional response – a situation which is reprised throughout. With an evident highlight being their phenomenal version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy The Silence’, the duo also make the likes of AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ and Kiss’ ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’ into tender bruises that are as delicate as a butterfly. Elsewhere, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ manages to justify its inclusion (how many versions can you take…?), ‘It’s Raining Today’ from Scott Walker is a majestic piano reading, whilst the unknown (to me at least) ‘These Days’ from Matt Burt is an all out tear-jerker. Dictionary definition of the word magical.
I defy anyone to find more than a handful of female voices that are more intoxicating than Susannas in the world today. The overall end result of the album is no less beautiful than their debut, but on an emotional level is very slightly less affecting. if you’ve been craving a truly amazing female vocalist for a long time then either this or their first album are wholeheartedly recommended.
Songs as seemingly insubstantial as AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” and Kiss’ “Crazy, Crazy Nights,” broken down to their most basic elements, miraculously achieve substance here in the hands of Wallumrød and Qvenild. The AC/DC cover, with its out-of-left-field use of cembalo (!) is particularly striking. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has been covered to death (and in fact featured on the first Nouvelle Vague album), but Wallumrød’s frail voice, backed by electric piano and a smattering of synths, make this an interpretation to treasure. Another highlight is the album’s closer, the lovely Sandy Denny cover, “Fotheringay”, with its effective (and unexpected) use of church organ. It’s also an ideal selection, as Melody Mountain is the perfect aural accompaniment for a wet, grey autumn afternoon.
Being There (US)
It’s rare to stumble upon a record that truly and deeply moves you, that brings tears to your eyes, runs shivers up and down your spine like little ants running to and fro, and makes you sit down and think about what it is that matters in your life. Melody Mountain is one of these records. It’s hauntingly beautiful, eerie and, well, magical. I tried extremely hard not to use “magical” anywhere in this review unless strictly referring to the duo themselves, but I just can’t help myself. They definitely hit the nail on the head with this one, as their name fits perfectly with their sound. The record is made up of ten songs that I’m sure will leave quite a mark on its listeners. They have taken music from a large array of artists, such as AC/DC, Leonard Cohen and Prince (to name a few), and have made it their own. Their interpretations are unique and personal, and if you ask me, just plain fucking great. For me, there’s usually one song on a record that will leave that extra special impression, and this one is no exception. I don’t want to come off as being extremely dramatic (which I don’t think I am), but the first time I heard their spin of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Joy Division), I was literally in tears. It brought with it a rush of memories of heart wrenching events of the past and of loves lost. Yeah, that might sound depressing, but let me assure you, I felt cleansed and refreshed after the experience. I guess all an artist can really do is make music that means something to them, even if not truly all their own, and hope that the same is true on the other side, and that the audience will see it in and receive it in the same light. For me, this record definitely did its job. Most of the music in my collection, and the artists I go back to time and time again, are the ones that distinctly remind me or bring me back to a specific time, or make me think of a certain person. I have a feeling this record might make it into this collection, and will always and forever bring me back to Victoria, in October of 2006, when I first began writing for Two Way Monologues and was trying to figure out the rest of my life. Whether it’s holding all of your attention in the palm of its hand, or simply whispering in the background, Melody Mountain is a beautiful experience right through to the last note. Enjoy.
Two Way Monologues (CA)
Beautifully arranged with a highly original and personal take on each cover, Melody Mountain is simple and understated. 5/5.
Record Collector (UK)
The song begins with a series of carefully chosen organ notes, reverberating against a dead velvet silence. Against this somber background, Susanna Karolina Wallumrød slips in, her voice somewhere between eider down and crystal, soft at the edges but full of shivery, diamond-faceted light. The words are widely spaced, allowing for gentle commentary in keyboard arpeggios between the phrases, and the whole experience is so transfixingly strange that you may not notice until mid-way through that the song is familiar. It is Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Part” and yet it is not. It is something entirely other, more serene and more unearthly. If the angels met Ian Curtis as he made his crossing and if they were in a forgiving mood, they might sound just like this. The cut is one of ten superlatively beautiful covers by the Norwegian singer and her “Orchestra”, actually one Morten Ovenild (of Jaga Jazzist, Shining and In the Country). Not surprisingly the artists are able to wring surpassing loveliness out of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (though it does raise eyebrows when they nearly wrest ownership of the song from Jeff Buckley). However, due to the sheer chilly grace of Wallumrød’s voice, songs by AC/DC (“It’s a Long Way to the Top”), KISS (“Crazy, Crazy Night”) and Prince (“Condition of the Heart”) are nearly as gorgeous. The disc closes with the church organ solemnity of Sandy Denny’s “Fotheringay,” a song so encased in mist and melancholy that even Susanna can hardly make it sadder…but she can make it more angelic and beautiful.
Joni’s ‘River’, like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’, is one of those songs that shouldn’t be done any more, because there are now so many versions, and beauty and revelation becomes cliche. Still, my favourite cover of the year is ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’ by Norway’s Susanna and the Magical Orchestra from their Melody Mountain album, they also do ‘Hallelujah’, as if no one else ever has, not even Cohen, as well as austere, monumentally wistful non-novelty versions of Kiss, AC/DC, Dylan and Depeche. They do more with next to nothing than most do making a big rowdy fuss. With their ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’, they show how a truly great song can continue to release surprising meaning no matter how many times it has been done. It is definitely ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’, but something else altogether.
Observer Music Monthly (UK)
There are beautiful, incredibly stark versions of Prince´s “Condition Of The Heart”, Depeche Mode´s “Enjoy The Silence” and Bob Dylan´s “Don´t Think Twice It´s Alright”. You might think Leonard Cohen´s “Hallelujah” didn´t exactly need to be slowed down any more than it already is; but for my money Susanna´s version stomps all over it, and absolutely obliterates Jeff Buckley´s effort. Every song is a highlight, but there´s something about their funereal version of Joy Division´s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that sums it all up. This is not a novelty record, there´s no irony. This is about songwriting stripped so bare it gives new meaning to the originals, as if this is how they were always meant to be; one of the prettiest, saddest songs here is AC/DC´s “It´s A Long Way To The Top”, so good it´s embarrassing. This album is practically transcendental. Wallow in it.