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A Taste of Ra - A Taste of Ra

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Artist: A Taste of Ra

Album: A Taste of Ra

Label: Hapna

Review date: Aug. 30, 2005

Anyone familiar with songwriter Nicolai Dunger will instantly recognize the Swedish troubadour’s trademark vocal theatrics on A Taste of Ra, Dunger’s first release under a pseudonym. Best known stateside for his excellent collaboration with Will Oldham, 2003’s Tranquil Isolation, Dunger has made a career of shapeshifting. Six years ago, This Cloud is Leaving found him backed by fellow Swedish atmospheric rockers The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, 2001’s Soul Rush was a stab at Van Morrison piano balladry, and the aforementioned Tranquil Isolation was, naturally, an acoustic, backwoods attempt at American folk music. So it should be no surprise that in the wake of the new-folk movement, and the renewed public interest in psych-folk, that Dunger took a slightly less structured direction for his next recording. Dunger’s decision not to release A Taste of Ra under his own name may be an attempt at mystifying the release itself (in tune with the mysterious aura of the music it contains) or it may mark Dunger’s wish to have the record viewed outside of his musical trajectory. Either way, it stands among his best work and should end up one of the finest of psych-folk records this year.

On past releases, Dunger’s vocal aerobatics often came in conflict with the simple structures of his songs, sounding a bit too forced at their most emotive moments. A Taste of Ra’s experimentations give Dunger full reign to wail and moan, and showcase his voice in a way that his previous work only hinted at. The relatively lo-fi nature of the album is also a departure from past releases, and complement the mood of the songs better than any crisp production job. Opener “Lovearth Song...” sounds as if it could have been recorded in Dunger’s bedroom, with echo-laden acoustic guitar, and atmospheric flute and organ flourishes.

"Lovearth Song..." lays out the blueprint for the rest of the record, more or less, as each song is ultimately some variant on the acoustic guitar/vocals format, with random but effective accompaniment by a variety of instruments floating in and out. That isn't to say that A Taste of Ra is predictable; much like Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, A Taste of Ra manages to sound experimental in spite of its minor accompaniment. Much like Buckley, Dunger seems primarily interested in using his voice as the main instrument, bending it and straining it in ways that are sure to polarize listeners.

Several songs, including the intriguing “Indian Love Call,” find Dunger trying, and largely succeeding, to out-warble Devendra Banhart. If A Taste of Ra is a response to Banhart and Co.’s success, it certainly stands up to any of records they have released thus far. The only major break in the album’s progression occurs during one of its finest moments. The very poppy and straightforward “Can You?” seems out of place with its meandering neighbors, and is the only track to feature drumming. Out of context, the song is a fine slice of '60s era sunshine pop. For some, this will no doubt be the highlight to an album of loose, cathartic musings. For others, it may sound like an AM radio hit among a collection of challenging off-kilter ballads. In the long run, either interpretation points to some of Dunger’s best work.

By Jon Pitt

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