Various Artists, Nordic Roots 1 (Northside, 1998)
Various Artists, Nordic Roots 2 (Northside, 1999)
Various Artists, Nordic Roots 3 (Northside, 2001)

There's a pleasing dissonance in Nordic traditions, often a restraint that hints of something without ever going there, that's found much more in Nordic music than is often the case with music from the Irish and Celtic traditions. Listening to these collections, I couldn't help but begin thinking about why that might be. After all, I thought, the live acts of many of the artists on these collections are so very similar to some of the best live shows in the Celtic traditions. While you're pondering that, let's take a look at these three discs, drawn from the Northside catalogue.

The usual thing with collections is to think about who buys them, and why labels bring the differing visions of the artists in their back catalogues together. For buyers, particularly those who have less familiarity with the genre, these discs are a pretty good bet. Those who've heard one of the groups and become curious about the genre benefit from the phenomenal taste of the folks at Northside who've put the discs together. Did I mention that this is low risk at $5 per disk? We've reviewed lots of the albums and virtually all of the artists included on these discs here at GMR, and I have to admit that I'm having trouble finding fault with the selection. Others have noted that these collections do justice to both the region and the artists, and to that I can only add my hearty endorsement.

Not onllly are the artists working here a great representation of some of the most creative artists in any traditional folk genre today, but the production values are extremely high, with sophisticated arrangements and judicious use of what the studio has to offer. As someone who listens to part or all of thousands of folk music CDs each year (no kidding!), these collections are more than a breath of fresh air, they are a comfort and a balm, and they create hope in even the most jaded listener.

So where to start? I find Nordic Roots 3 to be the most approachable of the three collections. It begins with one of the best tracks from Gjallarhorn's sophomore disc, Sjofn, "Suvetar," and continues on with some great fiddle music from Aly Bain and Ale Möller, Finnish accordian wizard Maria Kalaniemi and Sven Ahlbäck, a mesmerizing number from Värttinä called "Laiksa," closing the album out with Hoven Droven's "Malört." There isn't a single track on this disc that isn't completely enjoyable, and I find my cursor pointing to this disc on iTunes with almost frightening regularity. In particular, the lilting instrumentals and sparing use of vocals (all superb) will please those who are accustomed to Irish traditional music, and if that is your first love, I encourage you to begin to explore the Nordic traditions with this disc.

That is not to say that the other two collections don't have their own delights. Chateau Neuf's "Den Store Paipolsen" will please fans of vocal ensemble singing, as will Hedningarn's "Grodan/Widergrenen." Which brings me to my next comparison with the more familiar Celtic tradition: strong female vocalists. How many times have I commiserated over a pint over the state of Irish, and to a lesser extent, Scottish insipid, breathy sopranos? If you appreciate the female voice, and are longing for vocals that express the full range of this distinctive "instrument" to bring out the nuance, the hint of an older, wilder world that lurks in various folk traditions, you absolutely must discover the female vocalists from the norther regions of Europe. All three Nordic Roots collections have some great examples, including Garmana, Värttina, Hedningarna and Gjallarhorn.

And once these ladies have softened you up, you may be ready for Wimme's yoiking, which is an indigenous traditional music from Finland, adapted to the world music stage by judicious use of percussion and other instruments. Wimme appears on Nordic Roots and Nordic Roots 3, throwing his voice around, displaying some impressive vocal gymnastics. I once saw him play the Calgary Folk Festival, performing a yoik inspired by some stray dogs playing on the empty field in the morning before his show. It was magical, as are his discs -- but for the unitiated they may be a bit like jumping into the deep end of the pool before you've given up your water wings. Try these selections and see for yourself. Did I mention these collections are low risk, as well as displaying taste and good judgment?

Which brings me back to the musings over this tradition, live and from the studio, like these selections. I write on a visit to Minnesota, sitting in a Dunn Brothers coffee shop, and blending into my native place like the tall, light, lumpy-looking person that I am. Those who know me, know I've rarely been to an Irish music session that I didn't like, and heard a plethora of Celtic music, both live and recorded, professional and not-so-much-so. As I listen to the unmitigated tastefulness and calculated excitement that these collections create, I can't help but wonder what this music would be like if the Nordic diaspora had sessions in every town, in every (imagine it!) Swedish pub that dotted little towns and big cities alike. If there were Nordic fiddlers being produced by dedicated teachers all over the world, and not only a mass exodus of folk musicians going on tour each year. Would we see the same variety and varying levels of quality as aspiring Nordic musician from towns small and large sat in a living room and recorded their dream, their interpretation of this living tradition? I wonder. I can't help but think it would be a blessing and a curse for folks like me, but more blessing I suppose; and it would probably represent more of a curse for those making their living as musicians in this tradition, as the market was flooded with discs from the diaspora. Well. I know this music will inspire those who listen to it. I hope it may inspire folks to learn to play this music, and perhaps groups to play together, carrying its lifeblood beyond the land of its birth. Have a listen and see -- and if you're inspired, pick up an instrument and find a teacher. This is music that not only inspires, but deserves to be played! It might make it harder for the industry, but as I listen to these discs I have come to feel that the music has a real life of its own. Did I mention low risk? You can thank me later.