Jenny Hval and Phaedra at The Borderline

The Borderline, London
19 March 2012

Neither Ingvild Langgård, aka Phaedra, nor Jenny Hval, once known as Rockettothesky, are yet well known in the UK, but they both released excellent albums last year, and, at The Borderline, an ‘intimate’ basement venue, both proved to be arresting live performers.

This double bill of new female singer/songwriter talent from Norway followed hard on Rune Grammofon label-mate Susanna’s relatively high-profile set, opening for the Tord Gustavsen Quartet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday.

Phaedra. Photo: Kristian Skylstad

Phaedra—not to be confused with the Italian Tangerine Dream-inspired prog rockers of the same name—was first onto the Borderline boards. Multi instrumentalist Langgård’s band complemented her vocals, acoustic guitar and zither with electric guitar and electric keyboards, violin and percussion. The quartet successfully translated the immersive volk-ambient of album The Sea to a live setting.

Phaedra’s predominantly acoustic studio sound is fleshed out live with deep electronics, while Langgård’s dreamy, ethereal delivery is leavened by the often folk-noir bleakness of her subject matter (witness track titles such as “The Darkest Hour”, “Black Dog”, and “Death Will Come”). Her songs sound insubstantial on first hearing, but on revisiting seem instantly and uncannily familiar.

Two new songs, played at the end of the set, were well-received by some because they broke the foregoing mood of haunted beauty with bold, insistent rhythms, signifying a possible change of pace on subsequent recordings. Much as these pieces lifted the set, I detected a worrying hint of Florencey dramatics creeping in, so I hope it’s a development Langgård doesn’t take too far.

Jenny Hval. Photo: Karl Edwin Scullin

Jenny Hval’s voice has a beguiling range that’s capable of evoking both Laurie Anderson and Mary Margaret O’Hara in the course of a single song. She accompanies herself on electric guitar and, as on her album, she plays with only second guitarist Håvard Volden and drummer Kyrre Laastad for support, though both men extend their respective palettes using electronics.

Hval’s music is as intricately structured as it is deftly played, ranging from acoustic balladry through vivid art-rock to brushes in extremis with post-punk aggression. It’s a high-wire act which the trio pull off with insouciant grace, though they do lose the plot somewhat with the late-set inclusion of LCD Soundsystem cover “Dance Yrself Clean” (a tour bus favourite, we’re told), which they divest of its motorial intensity. They also struggle to come up with an encore (eventually settling on a jagged little number called “I Got No Strings”, which has been in their repertoire at least seven months).

Both Hval and Langgård are interesting for more than their music.

Productive in multiple media, Langgård is a graduate of Oslo’s Academy Of Fine Arts who both practices in photography, film, drawing and installation art. She also co-runs an art gallery. Phaedra, which is essentially a solo project that embraces external contributors, takes its name from the tragic heroine, in Greek myth, of Euripides’ Hippolytus.

That literary reference is one solid link to the work of Hval, who is a creative writing and performance graduate. Hval’s lyrics for Viscera are, she says, “interconnected” with the text of a recently published novel, Perlebryggeriet (The Pearl Brewery). Those lyrics are playful and exploratory, freighted with eroticism, and leavened with wry humour (“I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris,” she sings on “Engines in the City”. “After a few weeks it ran out of batteries…I am the engine now”).

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