Lief Sorbye,
Folk Music from Norway
(ARC, 1998)

There's an increasing variety of Nordic music on the market. While any fan of the sound can only welcome the variety, it doesn't take long to notice that many of the groups currently performing have a rather cold, polished sound. Nordic music certainly lends itself to such performances, but it leaves the rougher edge of such music languishing. Even folk doesn't sound very folky when it's performed by a highly trained choir and orchestra.

Lief Sorbye helps fill that gap with Folk Music from Norway. Warm and familiar, these songs that sound as though they might actually be performed by a lone singer or a neighborhood fiddler at a local dance.

Not that Sorbye performs alone. Though much of the album's immediate feel and warm sound are due to Sorbye and his enormous range of instrumental performances, the accompanying musicians Ken Embrey and Jane Landstra help define the album's sound with their hardanger fiddles. Landstra's vocals, along with those of Margie Butler, add a haunting, feminine quality to many of the tracks. Butler's harp and Piper Heisig's bass round out a heart string section, while Josef Bomback works a surprisingly natural DX7 synthesizer. Jackeline Rago handles percussion in several forms, and knows when to provide the heartbeat of a song or just a soft counterpoint. Paul Espinoza's accordion sounds rarely, but becomes indispensable in every song that features it. Sorbye is clearly appreciative of his fellow musicians, and several of the tracks on the album belong to them more than him.

Some of the album's warmth may come from the song selection. Any album that starts with a polka is bound to a certain level of cheerfulness. Not that "The Girl Moves on the Dance Floor/Tater Polka" is the tune most people think of when they see the word "polka." Even and rhythmic with nary a tuba to oompah along, the "Tater Polka" sounds like an evolutionary antecedent to the now familiar fair ground polkas. The tune does hold some of the bounce of the dance floor, and the link becomes clear if anyone should try to move to the tune. "I Lay Down to Rest" tells of a foreboding dream of death. The wordless "Scapegoat" also seems rather cheerful, considering the history of such creatures. Dominated by fiddle, it seems to be taking the side of the relieved people rather than the doomed goat. Not that there aren't some wonderful somber pieces; "We Shall Not Sleep Away the Summer Nights" carries a sadness so sweet it cuts, in vocals heightened by a piercing flute and the low sigh of bass.

But Folk Music from Norway never stays sad for too long, and "Hansen's Polka/Alborg Polka" is like a faceful of cold water after a dark dream. A sparkling chorus of strings and subtle percussion, it would fit in well at a dance party or a work session in need of some inspiration. These could be the tunes that led to "There's a Suitor in the Garden." A happy tale of love and avarice, the tune to "Suitor" goes richer along with the hopeful men, while the mandola and bass give the tune an insistent drive to match that of the practical mother. "The Old Lady on the Mountain Farm" is more open to the intangible rewards of love. A healing kiss sends her dancing along fence and gate, and it's not hard to imagine that hers is the song she hears as she skips along. An unusually long instrumental bridge encourages mental exploration of the old woman's path, or perhaps an attempt to test a magic kiss for yourself. The fiddles on "Old Woman" are as airy as they might be for an Irish dancing tune, and Espinoza's accordion gives a young, spry feel to the whole song.

Faint, high notes of a pennywhistle and the soft whisper of wind chimes breeze in the strangely comforting message of "Dance, Do Not Cry." Sorbye gentles his voice to carry the message that everything will be provided for, including the earth for a grave. The drone of Piper's bowed bass gives this song an elemental sound, as though the earth itself is sharing the message. A resident of that earth speaks his own mind in "The Barrow Man." A song of a peasant haunted by an angry ghost should end in tragedy, but here ends in gifts all around. Sorbye's voice shifts easily into the demanding tones of the angry ghost, enforced by his own drums and Piper's memorable bass. Landstra puts her fiddle to eerie effect, heightened by the chanting background echo of Espinoza and Butler. The insistent vocals and ominous drums are a sharp contrast to the "Springdans: Brekke Enkja/Margit Og Torgeir." An old three-fourths measure dance, "Springdans" is performed entirely on mandolins and mandolas, resulting in a light, formal feel that stands out sharply on this album of folk songs and country dances.

The final song, a children's nonsense tune, is sadly untranslated. But the cantering wordplay of "The Old Woman with the Staff" still encourages a sing-along, causing even the fiddles to give a happy shout now and then. "Reinlender/Rull," the two country dance tunes that follow it, help end the album in a mood so bright and expectant that it seems there must be more to come. Folk Music from Norway was released in 1987, which means Sorbye has had plenty of time for another album. Here's hoping ARC music provides it!

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 2 August 2003

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