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Nicolai Dunger - Tranquil Isolation

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Artist: Nicolai Dunger

Album: Tranquil Isolation

Label: Overcoat

Review date: Apr. 21, 2003

American in Mind

On the verge of kick-starting a career as a European soccer pro, Nicolai Dunger ditched the ball for the blues and emerged reinvented as a gritty singer-songwriter. Releasing a string of largely ignored experimental records in his native Sweden, the stately singer soon shifted to a more raw sound that echoed his love of American jazz and roots music.

Just as Sweden is becoming the rock-press’ latest Promised Land, Dunger has now resurfaced with his most direct and mature record to date. Far from the retro-chic and retreaded riffs being put to wax by his Scandinavian fashion-plate contemporaries, Tranquil Isolation finds Dunger literally and figuratively journeying into the depths of the American south.

Where Dunger's first domestically released record, last year's Soul Rush, was a lush orch-pop trip, embedding blues guitar and raw vocals in a smooth stratosphere of strings and horns, Tranquil Isolation strips his sound down to that of a front porch sing-along. Key to the new sound is the presence of über-American folk madman Will Oldham. A long-time fan, Oldham invited Dunger to his Kentucky countryside studio to work on his next album. Alongside violinist Jessica Billey, drummer Peter Townsend and brother Paul, Oldham provided the perfect musical backdrop for Dunger's increasingly rural songs.

The cover of the disc features a photo of a pink scarf-clad Dunger standing somewhat awkwardly in a cornfield as a yellow sun creeps over the horizon. This casual snapshot exemplifies Dunger’s position as the awe-struck outsider, and he stands in front of the barren field as one would in front of Graceland; proud, with a childish excitement seeping through his tight half-smile.

Yet, it is exactly this detachment that gives Tranquil Isolation its unwavering sense of blind enthusiasm. Often, the best music of a certain genre is made not by its natives, but by those so infatuated with a sound that they strive to make it theirs. Bastardization often leads to new musical vistas, and like the Stones, with their desperate, masochistic obsession with American roots, Dunger’s pure passion, along with his inevitable cultural distance, lends an inescapable magic to his tunes.

The six minute, mostly instrumental “Last Night I Dreamt of Mississippi” opens the disc amidst lonesome screeches of violin, warm plucked guitar, rattling snares and Oldham’s ghostly blues moans. “Last night I dreamt of Mississippi,” Dunger grittily wails. “I never thought I’d catch you on that side.”

The foot-stomping “Hey Mama” follows with Dunger wrapping his pained vocals over Oldham’s fluid fits of guitar. The country-blues shuffle of “One Hundred Songs” plays a weary violin lick off of Dunger’s tear-stained plea “I must exchange you baby / With the drugs / And when the drugs don’t work anymore / I send for you my little darling / Just like a song.” If only Mick Jagger ever sounded so sincere.

“Me, Ray and JR” is a live-wire guitar romp that staggers with drunken fire pinned on one hell of a hook. Dunger’s somewhat simplistic command of English actually adds to the lyrics, supplying a simple rustic poetry perfect to the hollow, relaxed feel of the album.

Things do get a bit hokey on occasion, such as the silly soul of “First Runaway.” And the album’s second half contains a few wilting ballads, but you can’t really blame the dude for sometimes trying a little too hard.

All in all, however, with Dunger’s Van Morrison-like rolling drawl and the Oldham Co.’s excellently ramshackle performance, Tranquil Isolation is a charming testament to the beautiful melancholia of an outsider in the American south.

By Ethan Covey

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