Olof Arnalds, Innundir Skinni
A witches' brew of wonderful, entrancing folk music
Ólöf Arnalds' small, wonderful debut, the politely-mysterious Vid og Vid, seemed beamed in from another world, its delicate lullabies and slow-curling ballads seeming wholly, unidentifiably alien. It wasn't that the songs were menacing — it was more that her porcelain songcraft had no clear aesthetic equal — she was a placid, saucer-eyed extraterrestrial mother cooing softly by the fireplace. With each pass, the record grew more enchanting, its language and rhythms becoming familiar, comforting.
On Innundir Skinni, her superior follow-up, Arnalds doesn't expand her sound so much as refine it. Her profile has raised some — enough to warrant a few mentions on indie rock blogs and to earn the presence of fellow Icelander Björk on "Surrender," but her compositions are still comprised of mostly basic instrumentation: the dry pluck of Arnalds's guitar, the steady, trembling flutter of her voice. Her songs work because the melodic paths she follows feel so unlikely. Each vocal line curls like a question mark, never resolving, just asking, over and over and over. The dry, Pendereckian squeak of strings underneath "Madrid" just underscore that song's baleful tone. There are a few moments that hint at grandeur: All-join-hands opener "Vinnur Minn," with its eerie gang chorus, would work just as well at a May fair or a midnight witches council; Arnalds is joined on the bewitching "Svif Birki" by what sound like a small cluster of tiny phantoms. But mostly it's Ólöf alone, singing each word as if reading from a spell book. She even deftly navigates moments that theoretically shouldn't work: "Jonathan," with its sparkling wind chimes and skipping guitar, is closest in mood and tempo to an Irish jig, but the strange timbre of Arnalds's voice keeps it from becoming overly cloying. Like her cousin Olafur, Arnalds knows well the power of both mood and atmosphere, and the songs on Innundir Skinni cast her gentle gifts in cool, early-morning light.
She also finds room for a moment of tenderness. "Crazy Car," Arnalds's first recorded English-language song, finds her trying to talk a slowly unraveling friend down from a ledge. It opens softly, "Dearest, dearest, here's a song," but steadily escalates in urgency, the titular car gradually assuming the ominousness of a ghost carriage. "Please beware the crazy car," Arnalds warns — before calmly, wittily, offering its equivalent: "Please don't go to America." In Arnalds's spirit world, nothing is quite as deadly as the threat of mundanity.