In a recent article in the New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones examines four artists that have recently covered Joy Division’s immortal “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” He devotes only a single sentence to the best version, recorded by Norway’s Susanna & the Magical Orchestra. (It’s actually duo of singer Susanna Wallumrod and keyboardist Morten Qvenild, who’s also a member of the jazz trio In the Country.) The group’s excellent new album, Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon), consists entirely of covers that radically transform the originals to molasses-slow lamentations of deeply focused emotion. Wallumrod, whose brother Christian is one of Norway’s best bassists and bandleaders, sings pop music with the invention and technique of a jazz singer, much like fellow countrywoman Solveig Slettahjell—both of whom could provide some useful lessons to Norah Jones.
The duo’s debut album, Lists of Lights and Buoys, featured mostly original material, but reinventions of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Who Am I” signaled the direction of the new album. The process of extreme reduction sheds new light on the songs qua songs and indicates the duo’s gifts for arranging. But it also illustrates the power of vocal phrasing, and Wallumrod is a master. Perhaps the most unlikely and successful cover here is of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” Over minimal harpsichord accompaniment she sings the verses with the sobriety of an English folksinger, articulating every syllable with ethereal gravity; when the chorus rolls in, Qvenild accents the harpsichord figures with mournful swells played on a church organ. Delivering the prosaic words about the hard knocks of show biz, Wallumrod may as well be singing the Lord’s Prayer. It might be the most beautiful thing I’ve heard all year.
My other favorite is the duo’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which, with Qvenild playing simple damped piano strings—one of his favorite techniques is to put strips of duct tape across the strings for a dulcimer-like sound—brings a moment of lightness to the album, but that doesn’t mean that Wallumrod is any less riveting. They also tackle Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today,” the Sandy Denny gem “Fotheringay,” and even Kiss’s “Crazy, Crazy Nights,” bringing a highly original touch to all of them. As a kid I remember arguing with my father that singers who didn’t use their own material were superfluous. I chuckle at that thought these days. The folks are always right.