7/10 The Netherlands has produced a few notable singer-songwriter talents in recent years – Caro Emerald, Laura Jansen, Marike Jager – but one that really stands out from the pack is dusky-voiced Dutch-American Signe Tollefsen. Her 2009 eponymous debut was an accomplished foray into lucid folk-noir and netted the redhead numerous awards. Now with weighty expectations to live up to, Tollefsen is taking her time over album number two and so Baggage, a covers EP, presents a timely distraction for her growing international fanbase. Trust Tollefsen not to take the easy option, however, for the six songs here include several deemed hallowed and, frankly, unbetterable.
Baggage gets off to a neutral start with a measured, drowsy take on American standard ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that robs the track of all its imprinted cheesiness from years of overuse in TV ad jingles. Tollefsen’s version is silky and sad, adopting a little-recorded variation on the lyrics that underlines the song’s inherent melancholy. Fellow Dutch act and tour companions The Woodwards feature next as Tollefsen takes on the band’s ‘No Thank You’, turning it into an enveloping bluesy lullaby with darkness at its core. So far, so-so, but from there Tollefsen treads into dangerous waters with mixed success. She’s not the first person to cover Portishead’s enduring ‘Glory Box’, nor PJ Harvey’s near-sacred ‘Down By The Water’, but it’s still a relatively contentious move to mess with these songs, and it’s a rare artist who can shoulder the comparisons. Tollefsen, luckily, gets away with it better than most.
Beth Gibbons is a torch singer of a very different stripe, but ‘Glory Box’ works when pushed even further in the direction of that time-honoured style with an elegant arrangement of layered violins and low-mixed backing vocals that sound as if transplanted from a warped old vinyl. What Tollefsen’s singing lacks in Gibbons’ ashen sensuality, it atones for satisfactorily with its soaring siren calls and fluid sensitivity to the lyric. More daring by half is the intro to ‘Down By The Water’, first for its audacious lifting of a segment of the melody from Joanna Newsom’s ‘The Book Of Right-On’ and second, for the breathy, sinister overlaid vocals that chant the title alone for a full minute before the familiarity of Harvey’s “Little fish, big fish…” refrain signals the song’s proper arrival. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Tollefsen deserves substantial kudos for showing some creative nous where others would embarrass themselves.
Between these covers of two of England’s most towering female talents sits Tollefsen’s interpretation of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’, almost unrecognisable as an acoustic, atmospheric ballad. Keeping the melody strong, Tollefsen transforms it into a work of gripping intensity and desperate beauty that crystallises brilliantly come the fourth minute. Completing the set is a headswimming take on David Bowie’s ‘As The World Falls Down’ from the ‘Labyrinth’ soundtrack, providing a gentle, nostalgic finale to a surprisingly savvy collection. There’s no doubting Tollefsen’s belief in her chosen material, the outcome being an exceptionally committed, if seldom thrilling, set that does nothing but justice to the singer’s good name.
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