East of Eden (08.09, Rough Trade)
For: Hanne Hukkelberg, Panda Bear, Paul Simon's Graceland
Byline: Concrete's front-woman takes a Hajj to Pakistan, comes back with 2009's most evocative and addictive album.
I have a pretty high-tolerance for things that could feasibly be played in a New Age Bookstore (my very first tape I ever bought was Enigma's "Return to Innocence"). Classic guitars, Gamelans, Didgeridoos, Indigenous flutes, Chimes, Crystals - none of this stuff really bothers me when it is put in a familiar context. I fall every time for albums by Stag Hare and Niagara Falls; if you cringe at the thought of a pan-spiritual pilgrimage to a third-world country by a Swedish musician known for unleashing "Young Folks" on the world, you would still probably dig East of Eden. Keep in mind, this isn't some dude with a ponytail aping some long dead musical tradition. This was recorded in Pakistan with traditional Qawwali musicians accompanying Victoria Bergsman through a sparkling Swedish avante-garde/Qawwali cultural exchange. I don't know which approach is more disingenuous. But Taken By Trees, whether it is authentic, ethical or whatever, is pure addictive ear candy and one of the most evocative releases of 2009.
"To Lose Someone" starts off the album with a full-throated Nick Cave like tale of loss, regret and suspected foul play. Before we can be bogged down by the subject matter a clamor of piping woodwinds, a sexy classical guitar line, and vocal accompaniment from late Qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan give the track an all access visa to a cosmopolitan village market. "Oh Anna" is interspersed with field recordings and a warm cooing chorus courtesy of fellow world-traveler Noah Lennox of Animal Collective/Panda Bear. "Watch the Waves" and "Grayest Love of All" benefit greatly by Bergsman's seemingly awestruck admiration of the Qawwali tradition. she does not try to mimic the vocal patterns or attempt to play the sitar, or anything that the west has been guilty of. Instead she brings her warm-bath vocal purr to the table and lets the musicians around her amaze her. In fact, this is the greatest strength of the album is that in all of this Bergsman remains a tourist. She keeps the collaborations at arms length, both contributing and sitting back and letting the compositions move her. This feeling of admiration explains the albums only misstep, "Wapas Karna", a field recording of a Qawwali singer that feels out of place on an album of dialectic exchange.
Indie-primitvism and responsible parenting a given a spiritual head-nod to Noah Lennox by Bergsman's stripped down cover of "My Girls", titled "My Boys". Somehow Taken By Tree's version seems truer to the songs spiritual core with its pan flutes, Xylophones and plucked classical guitars. The album ends on a meditative drone that reminds the listener, if you aren't in a deep meditative trance and haven't conversed with the Almighty, right about now would be a good time.