Ólöf Arnalds, Innundir Skinni

Olof Arnalds, Innundir Skinni

Much as I like lyrics in general, I’m fully of the opinion that at the end of the day, you don’t really need them. At least, you don’t necessarily need to be able to understand them to be able to get the emotion behind them, if the musician or band’s good enough at what they do.

That’s pretty much where I am with Ólöf Arnalds’ Innundir Skinni. The Icelandic singer/songwriter sings primarily in Icelandic, naturally, which means that I’ve got not a freaking clue what most of the words mean (although apparently the album title means “under the skin”).

And honestly, I don’t care — the music Arnalds makes is so gorgeous, so meticulously beautiful that not knowing what she’s singing about makes no difference to me. I think of Skinni along the same lines as Lisa Gerrard’s work with Dead Can Dance, where there are no words (no real ones, anyway), just these heartbreaking, word-like sounds.

The really funny thing is that what Skinni makes me think of more than anything else, in spite of the pop trappings, is traditional Celtic folk music. Squint tight enough, and Arnalds’ Icelandic could well be Gaelic, and more than that, the vocal phrasings themselves are reminiscent of folk tunes from Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany. Right from the start of “Vinur Minn,” I feel like I could be listening to some Fresh Aire show or late-night pub session; admittedly, that feeling evaporates once the song rears up and heads skyward, all hippie-love singalong and Age of Aquarius bombast.

It comes back down soon enough, however, and the Celtic-folk resemblance holds for most of the album, particularly on “Svif Birki,” which if I didn’t know better, I’d swear was a song by folk icons Altan — Arnalds’ voice bears a striking similarity to that band’s lead singer, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, so much so that I keep expecting to hear familiar vocal melodies from Altan songs weave their way through.

Beyond the weird Celtic kinship, there’s a fair debt owed here to Nick Drake’s gentle, genteel, pastoral folk. On the title track, the warm, plainspoken sound is Drake all over, with Arnalds sounding like a good friend singing a song just for you in a cozy, low-lit room. The English-language “Crazy Car” stays in the same vein, this time as a duet with musician/artist Ragnar Kjartansson; it’s sweet and poignant and pleading, all at once, shifting slowly to a song begging the listener not to go away (and possibly risk their life, although why’s not entirely certain).

“Vinkonur” nears Tori Amos territory, almost (circa Little Earthquakes), with Arnalds coming off breathy and fragile, while “Jonathan” — the second of the disc’s two English-language tracks — is a gorgeous, captivating tune that flat-out includes a “toora-loora-loora-loo” refrain, straight out of a classic old Irish lullaby.

Towards the end of Skinni, there’s a bit of a downshift, with the quiet, melancholy “Madrid” sounding like a close cousin to Beth Gibbons’ solo work and the meditative, drone-y “Surrender” stepping somberly down the path, taking its time but decidedly with a destination in mind. The latter song is almost Björk-like in its arrangement, which makes sense, considering that the Icelandic megastar herself (who’s apparently a good friend of Arnalds’) provides a vocal part midway through the song.

By the time the instrumental “Allt i Guddi” rolls through, it’s like the closing credits to a subdued-yet-wonderful film, one with lots of shots of hazy fields and windswept coastlines but few subtitles to explain the action. And even if you can’t follow the plot, you find that you don’t mind at all.

[Ólöf Arnalds is playing 11/29/10 at Warehouse Live, along with Blonde Redhead.]
(One Little Indian Records -- 2087 Union Street Suite #2, San Francisco, CA. 94123; http://www.onelittleindian-us.com/; Ólöf Arnalds -- http://olofarnalds.com/)
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Review by . Review posted Monday, November 29th, 2010. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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One Response to “Ólöf Arnalds, Innundir Skinni

  1. Dryvetyme Onlyne » Blonde Redhead – 11/29/2010 on December 1st, 2010 at 7:02 am

    […] Penny Sparkle that I wrote back in September. Also, you should check out my friend Jeremy’s review of Innundir Skinni, the debut full-length from Olof Arnalds. And finally, the folks at Houston Press Rocks Off posted […]

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