If there are superstars to be named on the Swedish music scene, I would like this opportunity to nominate Lena Willemark (vocal, fiddle, viola, whistle, drone whistle), Per Gudmundson (fiddle, viola, bagpipes, vocal), and Ale Möller (octave mandola, overtone flute, cow’s horn, drone whistle, folk harp, shawm, harmonica, vocal), otherwise known as Frifot. The group’s CD Sluring is most certainly a masterpiece. These three individuals have a long and varied history with many groups and can play anything from the most traditional to the most avante garde. When they come together as Frifot, the focus is acoustic, traditional tunes, originals, and arrangements that will make your heart sing. The players don’t shy away from modern musical sensibilities, neither do they set aside their musical history and roots for contemporary gimmicks.
The instrumentals and accompanied songs are punctuated with impeccable a cappella pieces, and all the arrangements are wonderfully inspired, making for a spectacular listening experience. I was so disappointed a few years ago when Frifot made an appearance here in Portland, Maine, and I was out of town for my mother’s funeral. The live music would have been exactly what I needed to reaffirm life and help me move on. Now, mind you, even the best of days can be enhanced if you listen to this group. My friends who attended that concert were simply gushing in their reports to me. And so it is that I will gush about this CD and look forward to the day that they return to the East coast of the U.S.
One of the things I admire about Frifot is their ability to preserve their musical heritage while simultaneously moving forward through time. Their generation has left, and will continue to leave, a positive mark on Swedish music. That is the essence of any folk music. It is not a music stuck in time or on paper. It is a living thing. Imagine one of those old oak trees with deep, deep roots and new branches that tickle the sky.
The programming of the tracks is thoughtfully paced, the space between them being as short or long as needed to successfully move the listener to the next cut. The music is varied in emotions and textures without losing any continuity; an “album” in the true meaning of the word. I find it very hard to listen to just a portion of the album, because each cut leaves me anxious for the next one, and I am always satisfied with the path taken.
The first Swedish singer I heard many years ago (with Groupa) was Lena Willemark. I always feel like I’ve returned home when I hear her sing, knowing that anything in any genre she does is worth going out of my way to hear. Her voice is wise, rich and hard to forget. All of the lead vocals are handled by her on this recording, from the ballads to the hymns and work songs. Willemark is fully in control in any dynamic range, and moves deftly through melodies requiring the classic Scandinavian ornamentation, as well as those utilizing long non-wavering tones.
Willemark’s voice is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her talents, however. Her fiddling and viola playing are as satisfying as her voice, always moving in a confident, heartfelt manner. She is equally proficient as a soloist or ensemble member. On “Sluring” she also contributes some whistle playing — no slouch there either.
Ale Möller seems to be happy and comfortable playing anything that makes sound, from his voice to the mandola to the cow’s horn, and on through the list. With all of the instruments he can play, it would be possible for him to simply keep changing textures without too much reasoning behind it, but he always has a clear direction, and his choices of instruments for each cut are seemingly perfect. (I say “seemingly” because I don’t want to give him too much of a swelled head.) Möller is credited with many of the arrangements and a number of original compositions and is superb at both. Very, very tasteful.
Per Gudmundson is the glue in this trio. While I had this thought, and was contemplating the notion of him being in the middle, providing the foundation for all of the intriguing ideas that permeate this album, I took note of his photo in the CD booklet: in the middle. Always solid, always reliable. Möller and Willemark are the kites dancing in the sky, moving this way and that, flashing their bright colors; Gudmundson is the guy holding the strings with his feet on the ground.
It is a combination of musicians like this that makes a trio strong. All the necessary elements are in place: talent, variety, knowledge, spontaneity, heart, discipline and communication. They move through time and space as a single organism, breathing, stopping, starting and swerving as needed without hesitation.
If I was forced at gun point to pick favorite tracks, I might be able to. But I really, really like all of the cuts on this CD. There is not a clunker in the bunch, or even anything with a rough edge. This is not a group that relies on a single repeated formula for their songs, becoming boring after the first three or four. That is why I always want to hear the whole recording.
The first track, “MikkelPer/Kus Erik,” is like jumping into a cool but refreshing lake. The trio plunges into the melody simultaneously with instruments and vocal (Willemark) on a song that is “about the inoffensive gossip in Lena’s home village.” It’s a fun, lively piece, even if you don’t understand the lyrics. From there the listener is thrown into an a cappella medieval song, “Werlden är underlig.” The change in texture to the three strong voices insites a “whoa, that was cool!” Just as you get into the groove, it’s over. At first my reaction was that the piece seemed too short, but I’ve since changed my opinion as I’ve listened to the CD numerous times. It works within the context of the whole recording. There are two other a cappella songs that appear, “Baxarramsor från Stockholm” (number seven), and “Blomsterdid” (number eleven). By the end of the CD you’ve had just enough of a taste of their tight singing to leave you wanting more. A much better approach than having too much. “Bohushallingar” (number three) is a medley of six hollings to satisfy the dancers in the crowd. This track is a great specimen of Frifot’s ability to churn out the straight traditional fare.
After hearing three cuts, listeners have been successfully warmed up to experience “Balladen om den förtrollade” (number four), a medieval ballad that tells the story of a woman who has been cursed by her mother-in-law to carry a child for nine years instead of the usual nine months. Over the course of seven and half minutes, the listener is carried through a full dynamic range from a very quiet, weepy feeling to a driving anguished rhythm, Willemark’s voice rides through the musical bed and eventually lands on one of those sheep-calling wails. Time for goose bumps of the first degree. This song is an excellent example of the group’s ability to take and old song and make it theirs. It has a more complex structure than most songs, with many changes in density, mood, and dynamics. Whenever I reach this cut I feel like I’m really flying and ready to take on anything else that is thrown to my ears. It’s as if they are saying during the first three tracks “Here’s a bit of what we do,” and track four is “Now listen to this.” They’ve got a firm grip on you here!
Familiar and new textures and ideas await as the album continues though seventeen tracks. You will travel through short and long pieces, dances, more complicated arrangements, a cappella work, and I believe you will emerge with the adrenaline flowing, a smile on your face, and the need to play it again. In fact, I just want to stop writing, turn up the volume and continue on my merry way.