Hanne Hukkelberg’s fourth album since 2005, Featherbrain (Propeller Recordings) is, she says, “the record that concludes my first years as a solo artist”. Whatever she means by that, it’s certainly a mature work, a potential art-pop classic that invites a little intimacy before revealing its intricacies.
There’s a captivating balance here of various opposites, such as drama and intimacy, the homespun and the dexterously crafted. The title song neatly illustrates some of these tropes: Hukkelberg’s artfully modulated vocal passes from introspection to stridency as dry, delicate mechanical sounds yield to a more forceful accompaniment grounded in off-kilter guitar strumming.
Hukkelberg’s principal collaborators here are producer/multi-instrumentalist Kåre Vestrheim (Motorspycho, Jaga Jazzist, Shining, et al.), guitarist Ivar Grydeland, vocalist Mai Elise Solberg, and Hanne’s father, Sigurd Hukkelberg, who plays a church organ. They are all perfectly attuned to Hukkelberg’s vibe here, and the album is more strongly individuated and – despite its variety – coherent than her past efforts.
“Noah”, a set-piece song, starts obscurely, with Hukkelberg’s naïve vocal about “sinking down…drowning…” accompanied by an apparently submerged piano. Then the production comes into focus and a muffled (heart) beat builds on a swell of strings until the track attains a quirkily theatrical climax, Hukkelbeg’s vocal now strained but expressively resilient.
Hukkelberg has a strong but beguilingly mutable vocal identity. Some of her vocal mannerisms and musical passages might be allusive, but they are never derivative. Witness the peals of chiming guitar on “I Sing You”, which evoke a lost Cocteau Twins classic; or “The Bigger Me”, a disjointed assemblage of small, sonorous percussion sounds that reminded me of Evelyn Glennie. Hukkelberg’s vocal on the latter has shades of Stina Nordenstam. “My Devils” could be Wildbirds & Peacedrums arranged by Adam Ant (a faint but persistent thread of eighties nostalgia runs through some of the arrangements). Elsewhere, “You Gonna” has a Tom Waits swagger, all a-clatter with taut guitar and junkyard percussive stomp.
On Featherbrain’s arrangements, Hukkelberg demonstrates a painterly way with depth and shade and a cinematographer’s eye for mood. While the album’s lead single, “My Devils”, for example, is a gothic mini-symphony, “SMS” is a slight, musty, obfuscatory echo of strident folksong on old shellac. Then consider the detuned strings and whistling to the accompaniment of thumb pianos on “The Bigger Me”, which ends with the swell and fade of a sampled kettle’s steam whistle. The layering is perfectly judged rather than overladen.
Many tracks feature striking introductions, which set and individuate each individual mood. On “I Sing You”, a harpsichord announces the following dry, dramatic cello and guitar weave, which in turn insinuates a pulse beneath Hukkelberg’s hushed vocal. “The Time and I and What We Make” opens with a glorious symphonic vocal starburst, from which a more naïve melody emerges, to the accompaniment of bass drum blats, tubular bells and organ swells.
“Too Good To Be Good” is announced by (I think) a Mellotron and glockenspiel. Its multi-tracked vocal choruses cloud-break into airier instrumental passages of treated strings, these basic elements being layered and orchestrated, gaining in density until ultimately everything ends, abruptly, in a flurry of handclaps.
The album’s last track, “Erik” features a touching vocal of lulling constancy from 88-year-old Erik Vister, accompanied by de-tuned piano and a respectfully hushed Hukkelberg. The lyrics, sung in Norwegian, praise an “imperfect, honest existence” (according to notes by Jenny Hraval). Hukkelberg and Vister’s playful but muted unison whistling is a fitting and felicitous touch, the last sounds on an album packed with felicitous touches.
Hanne Hukkelberg at The Lexington, 30 April 2012.