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Floriography Wyndham Wallace , April 19th, 2011 09:54

Last summer, Pål Moddi Knutsen played the Træna Festival's Cathedral Cave, the cherubic youngster wrapped in a baggy woollen fisherman's sweater before a vast stone altar, perched on an amplifier case behind his accordion, looking out to sea and an endless horizon beyond. At his feet sat Kings of Convenience's Erlend Øye, presumably taking notes. Born some 500 kilometres beyond the Arctic Circle on the island of Senja, Moddi's youthful pallor belied an ageless sound perfectly suited to surroundings first occupied, legend has it, nine millennia ago. Despite bone-chilling temperatures, a crowd which'd first found itself hustling for space on stony ground, or seeking shelter behind the steep rocks at the cave's mouth, swiftly lost itself amidst the delicate twine of his songs, warming itself on the glow of his melodies.

Unfortunately, most people don't get the chance to see Moddi perform in such an extraordinary environment. His debut album, however, still manages to thaw the heart while transporting the mind to a similarly desolate marine location. He claims on his website that his "first encounter with music… was singing a children's sea shanty on the local radio station as a five-year-old", and it's the sound of an accordion, borrowed from his mother, which provides the thread holding his debut together. In fact, had he not grown up in a coastal community of only a hundred people, it would still be impossible to shake off the sense that he should have done: Floriography is permeated with an insular but never claustrophobic charm that sounds exactly as though he's performing within mere feet upon a worn stage constructed from driftwood. Its unhurried atmosphere and rawness (part of which is due to Iceland's Valgeir Sigurðsson, who recorded the album's early sessions) make it one of Norway's subtler but more rewarding recent releases, a naïve, skeletal but similarly wide-eyed cousin to The Waterboys' This Is The Sea. It's far from Mike Scott's concept of 'The Big Music', of course, but right from its opening lines - "These rivers are rain from a summer gone by / dragging the rubble to sea" – its author's eye for a startling turn of phrase ensures that it addresses comparable grand themes within a correspondingly dramatic landscape.

But Moddi, thank Ægir, isn't yet another of those polite, middle class, dewy-eyed folk revival acts that have regularly filled the pages of adult music magazines and broadsheets recently. Instead of draping his songs in the trappings of years gone by to underline his authenticity, Knutsen has genuinely grown up with Norwegian traditions. His songs appear to have been developed over centuries before being revealed to a modern world whose dirt and confusion then darken an already ancient, tarnished exterior. Thus, amidst the waltz-time wheeze of 'Poetry''s accordion, and over clattering, disorderly percussion that sounds like it's being beaten out on an old timber crate, he sings of how he'll "tie myself to the mast and wait here for the ship to sink, though I know I've set sail on a wishing well", before a simple piano line floats in and he asks, out of nowhere, "Is this what a biochemist would call happiness?" It's a line both breathtakingly succinct and loaded with sadness, a classic example of how he allows the ancient and the contemporary to interact, and the fact that it's delivered over the barest of instrumentation and yet throws a punch to the belly confirms its intimate potency.

Floriography isn't short of such moments. The aching hush of 'Ardennes' moves at the same glacial pace as a Blue Nile song but is stripped down to the barest of acoustic elements: brushed snare, a barely stroked cello string and the quietest of piano chords over that accordion. Then there's 'Rubbles', which begins like drone music performed by The Ancient Mariner, then slowly rises like a storm, Knutsen's voice breaking and croaking until he begs, desperately, "Give me peace". Suddenly his accompaniment is gone, leaving only the empty stillness after a hurricane.

'Magpie Eggs' is equally fine, its enigmatic, wordy text buoyant upon a melody weighted perfectly against sparse instrumentation that swells gradually towards his closing lines, "How am I to forget that you're there, with your skin under my nails?" 'Smoke', meanwhile, picks up the pace a little, a simple viola melody jigging above its opening picked acoustic guitar, Knutsen whispering tenderly of "mist lying dead on naked shoulders" until he explodes with the exhortation, "Hey, love, stay the fuck out of my home, I've told you a thousand times/ 'Cause my brain tells me you're dangerous, and my belly says you're just too hard to find". Suddenly his band bursts into raucous life, reaching a suitably salty climax beneath wordless wails before a final coda returns them to the same placid elegance out of which the song emerged. As an encapsulation of the sheer swooning fear and the instinctive, uncontrollable excitement inherent in falling in love, it's hard to beat. There's also an undeniable sweetness to the way he swallows the word 'fuck', like it's almost too awful to utter.

Though the album tails off a little towards its end - perhaps limited by the textures available to his musicians - and though Knutsen's vocals are occasionally heralded by an asthmatic gasp that can be distracting, Floriography's weaknesses are largely rescued by the steady stream of images that continuously leap out: "children awake out of sawdust wrapped in a black spotted film"; "when we hold hands any brief romance turns a little too fast into fear"; "with two cigarettes and your letter combined, this air is too heavy to breathe"; "looks like you've been eating magpie eggs again 'cause your face is a stump" and "there will be no way to feel human again outside your animal skin". While it's possibly not a timeless debut, it's full of timeless music that ebbs and flows like the tide, on occasions carried upon immense waves, at others – as Moddi himself likes to put it – "so fragile and discreet that you might want to sing along in order to help it continue". Like the natural world that inspired it, Floriography is flawed and vulnerable, capable of flashes of ugliness yet possessed of an often awe-inspiring sense of simple, intrinsic beauty. It sounds like we've got the fisherman's blues again…

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