EP that doesn’t offer quite enough.
Working under the name Grapevine Springs, Norwegian musician Jon Ivar Stegarud has released this five-track EP, and it’s an intriguing recording.
The Nordic take on Americana has become quite a “thing” over the last few years, largely thanks to the success of First Aid Kit and the interest they have generated in the roots-influenced music coming out of the Nordic countries. There’s no question that Nordic musicians have often proved particularly successful interpreters of American music while bringing their own distinct spin to a sound and that proves to be the case here, though some of the tracks work better than others.
It’s often said that Americana music bears the sound of the landscape it comes from. You can hear the sunshine and carefree lifestyle in the Laurel Canyon sound and the heat and the grit in Texicana music. The same is true of the Nordicana sound – there’s something distinctly of the North about it. It’s hard to identify but you can hear the difference between Nordic Americana and the music produced in the U.S. and that’s very noticeable on this recording.
The EP opens with ‘The Devil Within’, quite a dark song about inner demons that hovers somewhere between Americana and folk-rock. It’s a good song with a strong melody and shows Stegarud’s voice off well but it’s an odd mix of instrumentation that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the track itself. There’s some good musicianship from all involved but there’s a tendency to throw everything and anything at all the tracks on this EP and you can’t help but feel that some of the tracks would’ve benefitted from a “less is more” approach. Stegarud plays some nice guitar and his harmonica work is competent enough but there’s just too much going on to let the song itself shine through as well as it should.
Next up is ‘Evening Run’ and this is when you get the first clear indication that you are in Scandi country rather than Austin or Nashville. “Let’s go for an evening run/ put those running shoes on/ Over the hills and down in the sun/ let’s go for an evening run”. It’s all a bit twee and strangely at odds with the rather good pedal steel work that accompanies it, courtesy of Thomas Larson, who also mixed these tracks. This is the most disconcerting aspect of this collection of songs; you have quite dark tracks like the opener, ‘The Devil Within’ and penultimate track, ‘Whiskey and Solitude’ sitting alongside what comes across as pure whimsy like ‘Evening Run’ and ‘The Boat Song’, with its odd melodica solo.
Perhaps the best track on this recording is closer, ‘Weirdos and Misfits’, which is probably the closest of this collection to a traditional Americana sound. There are some nice, drawled vocals from Stegarud and the pedal steel and harmonica combination work well here. The artist has been clever in book-ending this recording with the two strongest tracks. It’s one of the curses of an EP that it rarely provides much more than a snapshot of an artist and what they are capable of. Stegarud, as Grapevine Springs, clearly has talent as a musician and writer but it’s hard to gauge just how deep that talent runs from this meager offering.
Critical assessments are always subjective and Nordicana has its own characteristics and a certain “folksiness” often seems to come with the territory, and that may be one of the characteristics that appeals to fans of the Nordic sound but it sometimes seems an odd juxtaposition to the grit of more traditional Americana.
As said earlier in this review, most of the tracks would, in this reviewer’s opinion, have benefitted from a leaner production, there’s just too much going on most of the time. The drum sound is also a little strange and often too prominent in the mix. Drums were played and recorded by Ian Romano, in his own studio in Canada and then incorporated into the final mix at Thomas Larson’s studio in Malmo. Romano’s playing is good and provides a solid rhythm track that moves the songs along nicely but the tone of the drum sound is either too bright or too flat for much of the time. These tracks might’ve benefitted from someone with less attachment to the recordings to bring out the best in them. Stegarud wrote and arranged all the songs; he also handles all lead vocals, plus he plays guitar, harmonica and melodica. Adding production to the mix seems too much for one artist to handle and you have to think that a more dispassionate set of ears might have given these songs a crisper, cleaner sound.
There are, of course, a lot of positives about this recording. The standard of musicianship is solid throughout, with all those contributing playing well and, in most cases, these are good songs. It would be good to hear a longer set from Grapevine Springs; something that gives more insight into the range of the music and where it’s heading. Until that comes along, these five tracks will probably continue to baffle and enthuse in equal measure.