Väsen is one of the best known names to come out of the Swedish folk tradition. They have been around, in one form or another, for over thirty years, appearing at different times as a trio, a quartet and a quintet. In their latest manifestation they have trimmed themselves right down to a duo, Olov Johansson playing two different types of nyckelharpa and a silverbasharpa and Mikael Marin on electric viola and violoncella da spalla, or shoulder cello.
The album, avoiding any cryptic cleverness, is simply called Duo, (Trio came out in 2002) and makes for a very good listen. The sixteen tracks are a mixture of original compositions by the two musicians, traditional Swedish tunes and three pieces composed by the celebrated nyckelharpa player Erik Sahlström who was largely responsible for the revival of interest in the instrument.
The album kicks off with “Dis,” a fine tune written by Johansson and one of those that stays in your head after it's finished. Each track listing carries a brief explanatory note, which in the case of the originals is not a musical explanation but a reference to some circumstance that brought about the tune, a rather charming touch. All we are told about “Dis” is that it was composed on a hazy spring morning (“dis” being Swedish for haze).
Listening to a good duo feels like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation. The ability to interact well is crucial and Johansson and Marin have been playing together long enough to know how that works, playing off each other with good effect. There are definite gains to be had by only being two. The rhythm of the tunes is revealed, not as something going on underneath helping to drive things along, but as an integral ingredient of the melodic structure. “Kung Harald,” composed by Marin is a case in point, a good tune with a bass line providing a counterpoint to the main melody.
Another benefit of this pared down instrumentation is that it really exposes the full sound of each instrument, an opportunity to hear those subtle qualities that can get lost in ensemble playing and the production makes the most of that. The secondary sounds of the nyckelharpa deserve to be heard, the drone strings, the intermittent buzzes and general grunginess being what gives the instrument its character. “Fröken ska få löken” is a widely played tune from the 1800s and sound even better with a bit of grunge.
Although it's a polska, “Gruffalon” has a slow, rather menacing introduction with lots of deep growling and nice textures. all given lots of space as some unison playing introduces the main tune and things pick up, though the deep growling continues to menace for the remainder of the track.
In a way this album feels rather like chamber music, which is by no means a criticism. It's vibrant, rhythmic and rich in texture and most of it is unmistakably dance music, but it conjures up images of dancing around the living room more than a dance floor at an outdoor festival and although I'm hardly a dancer, I don't see much wrong in that.
At the end of the short general sleevenote Olov and Micke write that the first thing on their wish list is “to play this new music in front of an excited live audience.” In normal circumstances this, coming from musicians with a new CD to put out and about would sound like stating the obvious, but in these times it's a heartfelt plea.