“You’re the coffee in my cup / you’re the one who woke me up …” So Daniel Norgren croons on the sweet, gospel-tinged love song “The Day That’s Just Begun,” one of many outstanding tracks on his new release Wooh Dang. It’s a sentiment I surely relate to, being a good 50 percent of Scandinavian stock myself, but as with all the best art, Norgren uses specifics to create something that’s universal.
Norgren has slowly built a loyal following mostly through word of mouth, but expect Wooh Dang, his first international release, to boost his fan base considerably. He’s doing unique and beautiful things with American roots music.
Over and over again, listening to this album, I was struck by its comparisons to a long-ago breakthrough in what we now refer to as Americana, Neil Young’s Harvest, right down to the album insert containing handwritten lyrics. This record was recorded entirely analog and mostly live by Norgen and his longtime collaborator Pelle Nyhage in a rural 19th-century house near Norgren’s home in Sweden. His band consists of old friends Anders Grahn (bass), Erik Berntsson (drums), and Andreas Filipsson (guitar and banjo), and the recording is a mix of these acoustic instruments plus Norgren’s plaintive tenor vocals and multiple instruments including guitar, keyboards, harmonica and Scandinavia’s unique one-stringed psalmodicon. Plus ambient sounds he collects on his daily walks through the woods.
The album in a way is centered around Norgren’s sense of joy and peace brought by the birth of his first child – its opening ambient track “Blue Sky Moon” begins with a sound any modern parent will recognize, a fetal heartbeat recorded from an ultrasound test; and the album closes with the sound of that baby’s first breaths, at the end of the brief instrumental title track. “So Glad,” about six tracks in, is a dreamy celebration of that birth. This song also leans heavily on a gospel sound, just Norgren’s vocals and piano with a drone of some sort in the background.
The album itself builds gently to a series of exciting climaxes. After the opening ambient track comes the slow burn of “The Flow,” Norgren’s vocals channeled through a Leslie cabinet or some other such trick that makes it sound like he’s singing through a wall of rippling water. When finally after six and a half minutes it opens up into the shuffling country blues of “Dandelion Time,” you’re ready for its stripped-down, funky rhythm and the deep saxophone fills behind the electric guitar licks and ecstatic vocal whoops. He rounds out the first half of the program with the deep gospel of “The Power” and leaps right into the soulful “Rolling Rolling Rolling,” with that most American of metaphors, the train. Sounds like everyone in the home studio joined in on the choruses for this one.
Speaking of soulful, check out the electrified r&b groove of “Let Love Run The Game” on this video. It’s full of imagery of the American countryside and cityscapes, including bits of performance at the Pickathon Woods Stage, where Norgren was a big hit in 2017. This is the final high point of the album before it eases its way through the denoument toward that final title track.
The low-fi nature of this recording may make it a bit of a sleeper for you as it was for me. By that, I mean one that slowly grows on you. But the soulful grooves, the catchy tunes and most of all the deeply personal and sincere lyrics will work their way into your mind and heart. Wooh Dang is an apt title for this record that in the end leaves you amazed at its gentle power.
(Superpuma Records, 2019)