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Album Review: Ólöf Arnalds – Palme

3 min read

Icelandic chanteuse Ólöf Arnalds cut her teeth as a member of the touring incarnation of fellow Icelandic group, the much-acclaimed mùm. Classically trained from the tender age of 8 and with three albums to her name to date (Við Og Við in 2007 with Innudir skinni and Sudden Elevation following in 2010 and 2012 respectively) her particular brand of nuanced, cinematic folk has earned her a solid following. Her fourth record (and second to be sung entirely in English) Palme drops this month and like most releases out of the tiny island wonderland that is Iceland, bears a certain kind of magic that nowhere else in the world seems to capture.

Olof Arnalds PalmeTo the wider world, Arnalds must have had to contend with more than her fair share of Björk comparisons in her time, but even the Queen of quirk herself describes Ólöf’s voice as “somewhere between a child and an old lady”. Whether this is a good thing or not is entirely subjective but there’s really no one else on earth who sounds like Ólöf Arnalds. The record opens cautiously with the textured folk of Turtledove which blooms from a sparse, haunting intro into some gorgeously subtle textures. The same goes for the swooning, almost gypsy folk of Defining Gender which sees Arnalds gently caress the strings of her her charango (a traditional South American ukulele-like instrument) in between her lilting, dervish violin melodies.

The measured gallop of Hypnose beautifully juxtaposes some electronic elements with the overall folkie aesthetic of the record. Similarly, the title track sits somewhere between new and old folk with a carefree buoyancy that’s underpinned by stark, utilitarian drum programming. Patience shows just how beautifully an electric guitar can sing when it isn’t being thrashed to within an inch of its life and the layers of “aah”s are positively gorgeous and sadly missing from much of the first half of Palme.

Half Steady is definitely a change in pace with chincy, video-game synth sequencing and walls of harmonies that are honestly a little more palatable to listen to than Arnald’s voice on its own. Not to say her vocals aren’t absolutely stunning, her tone is just very much an acquired taste and any producer will tell you that you can get away with a lot more once you enter the realm of layering. The vibraphone and surreptitious guitar picking of Han Grete support her somewhat divisive voice sympathetically and gently before closer Soft Living wraps things up with the kind of reserved sense of joy and satisfaction.

Overall, Palme certainly won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. “Icelandic folk” can be a tough sell at the best of times but Arnalds manages to infuse just the right balance of electronica and modern production into the record to save it from relative obscurity. There’s no contesting her incredible talent (she played a major part in the performance and recording of most elements of the album) but it’s ultimately the kind of record you’ll love for its lush, yet demure instrumentation or you just won’t be able to get past that “child/old-lady” voice.