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‘Sun Dogs’: a rich, evocative album

February 20, 2019

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Snowflake Trio blends certain North European sounds. PHOTO BY LUIS DECARLO

 

By Daniel Neely

In the music player this week is “Sun Dogs” by Snowflake Trio.  A bit off the beaten path (for this column, anyway), the band consists of an Irishwoman and two Norwegians – Nuala Kennedy (vocals and flute), Vegar Vårdal (hardanger fiddle and violin), and Frode Haltli (accordion) –  and together they’ve created a very beautiful, very appealing album that draws mostly from Irish, Scottish, and Norwegian folk sources.  The music here needs to be heard to be best appreciated, as the three musicians have blended these northern European sounds in a very listenable, almost “familiar” way, that at the same time respects each tradition’s individuality.

Regular readers of this column will recognize Kennedy’s name, as she’s a fabulous singer and flute player whose work I’ve written about regularly, including “Behave the Bravest” (2016), “The Alt” (with Eamon O’Leary and John Doyle; 2014), and “Noble Stranger” (2012).  In addition to being a world-class performer, she’s an in-demand teacher, and here, she’s has managed to find a pair of kindred artists in Vårdal and Haltli, whose musical bona fides in the world of Norwegian music match those of hers in the Irish.  Both are sensitive co-conspirators and together with Kennedy complete the artistic vision here.

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The album opens with a fascinating concatenation in “What Will We Do/Fjellvåk.”  There, the lyrics to “What Will We Do,” which Kennedy learned from Dervish’s Cathy Jordan, and which has had recent popularity due to its inclusion (although in a far different treatment) on Lankum’s most recent album, are laid over a waltz composed by Norwegian fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva and popularized through his group The Norwegian Fiddlers Bloc.  The result puts a bright spin on a fairly existential song that seems appropriate to the times in which we live.

Kennedy’s voice soars on “Gjendines Bådnlåt (Gjendine’s Lullaby)/Ri Tas is Fuachd (In Heat and Cold).”  The track uses an adaptation of the Scottish poem “Sean Èipheiteach ann an Tír Airsnealach” as the lyrics and puts them over the melody of an ancient Norwegian lullaby.  (It’s was so well known that composer Edvard Grieg adapted it and included it in his 1896 collection “Norske folkeviser,” op. 66).  The track is haunting and sparse, with the music playing perfectly with the deep poetry of the lyrics.  A similar approach is used on “Ceol Sidhe (Fairy Music) / Amerika-Vise (Emigrant Song).”  There, two bits of text are set to a Norwegian melody, the first being an adaptation of an Irish poem written in France during World War I and the second a Norwegian song about American immigration.  The track carries an almost a baroque quality that leans quite heavily on a sweet arrangement as well as the melody’s inherent beauty to move things along.  The results are stirring.

There are several very interesting, enjoyable instrumental tracks as well.  Kennedy originally recorded her composition “A Face for Scuba,” which is a quick, uptempo dance tune, with the Canadian fiddler & composer Oliver Schroer on an album that was nominated for two of Canada’s prestigious Juno awards.  The arrangement here is upbeat and cheerful, drawing on the virtuosity of each of the group’s players.  “The Green Lady” is a lovely mid-tempo piece with a lush, layered arrangement through which each instrument takes the lead by weaving in and out of it.  “Å, jeg vet en seter” is another great instrumental.  An upbeat, track with a frantic, angular melody set over a soothing bass ostinato, it seems to sit more fully on the Norwegian side of things, providing a nice contrast in style and approach from the rest of the instrumentals.

“Sun Dogs” is a rich, evocative album that explores a range of emotions and musical textures without departing too far from the traditional side of things.  The trio’s artistic vision is strong & expansive in concept, but what I like even more is how compellingly they’ve realized it in performance.  The trio plays works together with comfort and trust, which allows the project to feel vital and invigorating on the whole.  This is a great album, especially if you’re interested in poetry, mythology, and contemporary developments in folk and traditional music.  Fans of Kennedy’s will love it, as will fans of groups like Lúnasa, Dervish, and the like – definitely one to check out.  “Sun Dogs” can be heard on streaming services like Spotify; for more info or to purchase, visit www.snowflaketrio.com.

A final note: Kennedy will be doing dates in New York City, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania with the Murphy Beds (Eamon O’Leary & Jefferson Hamer) around St. Patricks Day, before heading to Australia for a gigs with O’Leary and fiddle player Gerry O’Connor and then Denmark, again with the Murphy Beds.  Catch her if you can!

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