Review: Jenny Hval at the Vortex

Jenny Hval, Vortex 2013. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved
Jenny Hval
(Vortex, 14 May 2013. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

John Peel would have loved singer/composer Jenny Hval. One of a diverse wave of Norwegian musicians making an impact on the international scene that includes Paal Nilssen-Love and The Thing to Jaga Jazzist and Tord Gustavsen, she draws strength from a heritage where music, art and poetry overlap, and positively references key figures from Kate Bush to The Cocteau Twins and Patti Smith. Her latest album is produced by PJ Harvey’s collaborator John Parish. Harvey was, of course, championed by Peel, and Bush was the subject of Hval’s Masters thesis at the University of Oslo, after a period of study in Melbourne. She described her English accent as ‘jelly-like’, reflecting her global itinerancy, yet expressed mild alarm at having stepped out of the plane and seemingly straight onto the Vortex stage!

Petite, fine-featured and articulate, she cuts a gamine figure onstage. Her distinctive performance was emotionally assured, highly personal and expressively idiosyncratic. With Norwegian compatriots, long-term accomplice, guitarist Håvard Volden, and drummer Kyrre Laastad, the immediate resonance was with Nico’s ‘Desert Shore’. Humming organs, anxious guitar and hints of the dark side of The Velvet Underground. Hval’s voice is enticingly elastic, and like her lyrics, full of surprise and contradiction. From a crisp whisper to the declamatory, the enveloping flow derived from a combination of precision and informality. The spoken word gave way to waves of vocal colour which touched wingtips with Elizabeth Fraser’s tonal delivery and the attacking strategy of Patti Smith, hovering abstractedly as the words let go of their meanings and the sonic impact took over.

The main focus was the new album, Innocence is Kinky, following her much-lauded 2011 recording, Viscera (both on Rune Gammofon). She has described the earlier album as being ‘set in the body’ and ‘composed and arranged by improvising’. The title, she recounted, is not what it seems, and derives from her time in Perth (Australia) where her neat, casual appearance and attire eschewed local norms, branding her as ‘kinky’ in the minds of the locals. The poetic edginess of her lyrics looks to Kate Bush’s feigned innocence and the discomfort nourished by the Surrealists. Reflective intelligence and a propensity to explore areas which others avoid lends power to her streak of musical independence. A watery ambience and a natural Romanticism seep into her lyrics. Expressions of intense need blend with quirky narratives and the mirror of self-portrait. Her geographical roots and meanderings find their way into the songs. “In Oslo, it’s warm and people walk through the city like friendly zombies.” “Joan of Arc follows me around Australia … Rotting leaves, bird shit, mud, flood water. I can smell what’s there …”

Volden’s tense, spare guitar provided a supple backdrop, harking back to his live and recorded collaborations with Toshimura Nakamura (whom we have reviewed previously), gliding from grainy minimalism to driven, Fender intent. Laastad flicked from clipped, paintbrush accents with tambourine and mallet to energetic injections of rolling post-punk thrash. The delivery had something of the contradictions of the raw, riffy rock and delicate poeticism of French female cult singer, Anthony Adverse.

Time and distance blended with washes and breaths in a process of construction and deconstruction. Tempos were expertly lost and found. A door was gently opened to Hval’s vision which has the potential to translate from the art-house to the grand scale and invites a tangential comparison with Björk.

This was a coup for the Vortex, who must also be warmly congratulated for their recent, long overdue recognition as a winner at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Actively looking to broaden their programming and their appeal they drew in many first timers to experience an exemplary setting where the bond between the musicians themselves and with their core loyal audience was allowed to blossom in this quietly remarkable concert. How long Hval will be allowed the intimacy of such venues remains to be seen.

Earlier, pianist Leon Michener had done battle with prepared piano and electronic processing, rapidly synching and de-synching a post-Headhunters techno with racing pulses and deft chord work to showcase his developing talents as a multi-faceted soloist.

Jenny Hval: vocals, keyboard, electronics, loud-hailer
Håvard Volden: guitars, keyboard, electronics
Kyrre Laastad: drums, keyboard, electronics

Categories: miscellaneous

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