A decade on from her startling English language debut, Balloon Mood, delightfully quirky Norwegian chanteuse Anja Garbarek returns with not one but two new albums, Briefly Shaking and the ‘Angel-A’ soundtrack. To be fair, the latter contains little in the way of new material and what’s there is largely instrumental. But as the soundtrack to maverick director Luc Besson’s (‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Léon The Professional’) mysterious new film, shot in black and white on the streets of Paris in almost total secrecy, it is more than up to the task. Given that this is Besson’s first film without composer Eric Serra, there was a certain element of risk in taking Garbarek on, but Besson is clearly a fan; five old songs are seamlessly scattered among the newer ones.
Of course, the risk was really very tiny. Not only has Garbarek been consistently excellent throughout her career, she also has an outstanding pedigree for this sort of thing, following as she does in the footsteps of her world-famous jazz genius father Jan, who has often dipped a toe into creating musical moods for fiercely independent European cinema. As they have often done in the past, father and daughter collaborate on a number of tracks, notably on new song ‘It’s Just A Game’ with its jazzy but subdued reassurance that “this is as good as it gets”. Don’t you believe it though. The sublime ‘No Trace Of Grey’ is so convincingly sweet versus sinister that it could well have been recorded at a teddy bears’ picnic in, say, the bathroom of cabin one of the Bates Motel.
Sticking with a murderous theme, the actually quite frightening ‘Can I Keep Him?’ (the only song to appear on both albums) is written from the point of view of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who lured several young men back to his home in Muswell Hill, north London [just around the corner from Wears The Trousers HQ!], and chopped them into pieces. It’s a towering example of Garbarek’s skill as a writer; she plays with the lost pet interpretation of the title and then, as Nilsen kills, the previously serene instrumentation explodes into beats so harsh and aggressive that it sounds like a trio of typewriters at war. Being taken inside the head of a mass murderer is rarely an attractive listen, but Garbarek’s portrayal is up there with Sufjan Stevens’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. in its almost sympathetic exploration of its subject.
It’s little wonder, then, that Garbarek has since remarked that she should have called the album ‘Beauty & The Beast’ instead of Briefly Shaking. That title comes from the chorus of the excellent first single ‘The Last Trick’ with its dark lyrical content, candied vocals and unsettlingly perky backing. It was written as Garbarek was struggling with her muse after giving birth to her daughter and could well have been her swansong had it not been for the thunderbolts of inspiration found in tales of horror and crime. ‘Sleep’, for instance, tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker but works equally well as a metaphor for her burdening creative imprisonment.
The most keenly felt difference between 2001′s Smiling & Waving and Briefly Shaking lies in the addition of drums, particularly on songs like ‘Dizzy With Wonder’, a thunderously intense and dramatic number in which Garbarek plays the role of an observer surveying some twisted, post-industrial landscape, and ‘Shock Activities’, with its slightly overblown kickass rock bits and unexpected mid-song shift into a cod-Gwen Stefani breakdown but with far greater charm. Other highlights include ‘My Fellow Riders’, with its piping keys and gently throbbing electro pulses, and ‘This Momentous Day’, an ecstatically unpredictable monster that juxtaposes flute and strings with grinding guitars and coolly passionate vocals.
Having said all that, while Briefly Shaking is easily Garbarek’s darkest album to date, it’s also her most accessible and lavish. Motherhood certainly hasn’t reined in either her knack for telling unusual stories or her beguiling way with a drop-dead gorgeous melody. Considering that she doesn’t play a single instrument yet still can pen such epic compositions, her achievements are simply astounding. She may not be the most prolific of artists, but with every release improving on the last, seemingly unbetterable album, it’s only a matter of time before her brilliance is properly acknowledged. File between Laurie Anderson and Björk and play with an alarming regularity.
[EMI; September 26, 2005]