Review: Jenny Hval at the Sebright Arms

Jenny Hval at Sebright Arms
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Jenny Hval
(Sebright Arms 3 June 2014; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Straight off the back of a tour supporting The Swans, Jenny Hval’s trio played a one-off gig at short notice at Bethnal Green’s tiny Sebright Arms, organised by promoters Bird on the Wire, and in turn, were admirably supported by Swedish songwriter Alice Boman.

Never one to take the easy option, Hval offered up slices of material from her most recent album, Innocence is Kinky, lightly refried and reprocessed, along with striking, adventurously structured, new material.

The heavy, bassier mix than previously encountered when she visited the Vortex perhaps revealed the seeping influence of being on the road with The Swans for close to 20 dates in the US and the UK, which Hval, wearing a Swans t-shirt (‘free advertising!’) and sparkly blue baseball hat, clearly had enjoyed. She also referred to her Norwegian roots with its ‘quiet religious vacuum of social democracy’ contrasting with America where she saw ‘Jesus posters – everywhere!’

The album’s title track, and the haunting René Falconetti of Orléans, and Give Me That Sound were notable for the way her voice cut through a stream of carefully fashioned sound washes, courtesy of her long-time collaborators, guitarist, Håvard Volden, and percussionist, Kyre Laastad. From a bed of shimmering guitar, oblique, pulsing electronics, and Hval’s wavering keyboard tones, her gentle, semi-distinct vocals broke into a strident, piercing cry as a hefty drum and bass roll ensued.

Hval has said that she has many fears tied up with the act of singing. The breadth of the range she displayed and the ways she used her voice, almost as a weapon of challenge at times, were testimony to her determination not to fall into stereotypical roles. Words are so important to Hval. She declared that she is much better at writing than memorising, and in the way she develops her persona in performance, lyrics were occasionally swallowed up and blended with chewed chords, while at other times rode above both garage band wrenching and marooned solitude with searing ululation and, by way of contrast, somnolent vocals.

The lengthy new number, Drive, with sketches of life on the road, was an extraordinary hallucinatory landscape of visceral expression, with Hval making straining demands on her own delivery, and Volden and Laastad excelling in building up raw flash floods of supportive sound for Hval’s stressed, poetic momentum.

Hval’s monologue/discourse with a hand held voice recorder pre-empted her response to her own previously stated challenge of ‘doing something really dangerous, like pop’, when the final number began with a disorientating pop song coming through the PA speakers before the trio launched into more familiar territory to round off their powerful performance.

Malmö-based Alice Boman’s opening set, just keyboards and soft, confident, vocals, with occasional accompaniment from Tom Malmros (of Malmö band This is Head), was captivating. Set within strong melodies, her intimate, reflective lyrics made use of standard phrases (‘Maybe I can help you…’) to convey personal sentiment with disarming immediacy. Another Scandinavian to look out for. 

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