Spælimenninir, Spælimenninir í Hoydølum (Tutl, 1977/2000)
Spælimenninir, Umaftur (Tutl, 1978/2000)
Spælimenninir, Malargrót (Tutl, 2003)

Malargrót found its way into my hands earlier this fall, and I intended to review just this one CD. While I was in the early stages of listening, however, Mr. Editor-in-Chief (that would be Cat) let me borrow his two other earlier recordings so I could take a pass at all of them. The group has recorded a number of other albums over the years besides these three, as you can see on their Web site. This review will look at two from the early years of 1977 and 1978 (which probably originally appeared on vinyl) and their most recent one released in the fall of 2003.

Spælimenninir, "the folk musicians", was formed in 1974 and went under the name Spælimenninir í Hoydølum, as they were based in Hoydølum in the Faroe Islands. But from the beginning the membership has included players from all over the northern Atlantic climes. Their repertoire is likewise representative of Scandinavia and all of the British Isles and includes a good amount of cross-fertilization among the various traditional styles. A true example of the ever-evolving world of folk music.

As I understand it, the membership of the early incarnation was a bit larger and perhaps more fluid than it is now, with players coming and going more frequently. Kristian Blak (piano, harmonium, vocals) has been the one consistent member all the way through. Joining him in the current lineup are Jan Danielsson (fiddle), Erling Olsen (fiddle), Sharon Weiss (recorder and also an early member), Ívar Bærentsen (mandolin, guitar) and Charlie Pilzer (bass).

The vast majority of the tunes are for dancing, though there are songs and other pieces sprinkled throughout. On Malargrót there are also some beautiful piano adaptations and compositions by Blak -- we'll get to those a little later.

Listening to Spælimenninir í Hoydølum and Umaftur, I'm instantly transported back to my music festival days with dances and impromptu gatherings of players romping through one tune after another; everybody playing and throwing tunes into the pot, no fancy arrangements or extreme dynamics, just the tunes, thank you. I have never seen Spælimenninir live, but I can imagine that an evening in the dance hall with them would be well worth the experience. Their playing is energetic but also relaxed, allowing them to fly through the up-tempo pieces with an ease that makes me want to pick up an instrument and join them, or find a partner and dance. There is a wonderful element of fun that comes across on the recordings, but I'll bet it's tenfold live.

I think almost every folk instrument from Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the U.S. makes an appearance. It keeps the timbres changing and interesting. On the ballads and slower tunes we get to hear the musicians' individual capabilities a little better, as the arrangements are sparser and more focused on some soloing and/or singing. If you have to have a dance with no live musicians (what an awful thought), play these recordings and it will almost be perfect.

Making the giant leap from the 1978 recording Umaftur to the present day release Malargrót points out the change in the quality of recording studios. There's more of a studio sound and less of the dance hall "room" ambiance on Malargrót . I don't know for certain that the 1977 and 1978 records were actually done in big hall, but it feels that way. Malargrót definitely has a studio sound. It makes the dance tunes a bit tamer in terms of energy, but the distinction of each instrument is greatly enhanced. Does that make it better or worse, you might ask? I could be convinced either way, so I'll call it a draw. The selection of material on Malargrót includes traditional tunes as well as some original compositions and adaptations.

The biggest changes on Malargrót from the norm as established on Spælimenninir í Hoydølum and Umaftur are the piano pieces by Kristian Blak (tracks 4, 7, 12, and 15). I'm going to focus on these four cuts as a group for a moment and then continue on through the other material.

"Det er i nat" (track 4) is an arrangement of a Faroese ballad with piano, bass, and recorder. There is a real jazz/new age feel to this cut. The recorder plays the melody at the beginning and the end with some stretching out by Blak on the piano in between. It is a beautiful, contemplative piece of music that could have gone on for twice as long and not gotten tiresome.

"Elean" (track 7) is a solo piano composition inspired by music from the island of Lewis in the Irish Hebrides. This is also very nice, but I don't get as much of a sense of ease from Blak as I did on track 4. There are points where he seems to be trying a little too hard or relying on repeated motifs a little too often. There is great potential in this composition, I'm just not sure he hit "the zone" in this take.

"German Gladensvend" (track 12), also solo piano, is more successful, with a nice bass line curling around and under the melody, punctuated sparsely by simple chord structures. It has a darker feel and is described as "a new melody for an old Danish ballad."

The last of the piano pieces is "Álavastakkur," an original composition by Blak, inspired by the beauty of the Faroe Islands. The band joins him in this arrangement, adding to the audio vision of the landscape. It's a lovely sweeping view of his homeland and I want to go there! I could easily hear this piece as a theme song for a movie. There is a nice dynamic range from the whole band to just the piano and guitar, and a couple of interesting chord choices toward the end of each stanza.

Upon my first listening to this album, Malargrót, I wasn't convinced that the piano pieces worked in context with the rest of the repertoire. I felt like it kept flipping from side A to side B, to use some old terminology. These tracks are such a complete departure from the dance selections that I found the mood change jarring. The jury is still out on this issue, though the programming is beginning to grow on me. My hesitation surprises me because I'm usually the one that loves an eclectic mix. Perhaps some other ordering of the tunes would have garnered a different response, or some different arrangements on the individual tunes surrounding the piano work might have eased the listener in and out of piano territory. It would be interesting to have a discussion with the musicians about it and find out how others have reacted. To the good, I do love to hear folk musicians stretching their wings, and Kristian Blak has a way with composition that brings beautiful visual images to mind -- I look forward to more of him writing and adapting!

The other tracks are a combination of traditional tunes (tracks 2, 5, 8, 9, 13, 14, 16 and 17), Ívar Bærentsen compositions (tracks 1, 3 and 6), one from Moses Paulen (track 10) and a couple of things from the tune collecting of Faroese linguist Jens Christian Svabo (1746-1824) (tracks 3 and 11). All wonderful cuts, mostly with full band arrangements in the way you would hear them in the dance hall. The band is nicely balanced with the two fiddles, recorder, mandolin and bass, piano and harmonium. Singing takes a decidedly back seat on this CD, but I'd love to hear more of it.

All in all, a fine batch of recordings, and if you ever do see that they are playing in your neck of the woods, go out of your way to see them.

[Barb Truex]