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Nicolai Dunger | Tranquil Isolation (Overcoat Recordings/Virgin Records Sweden)
Swedish singer-songwriter Nicolai Dunger certainly isn't averse to making strange musical connections. Since his Sweden-only debut 'Songs Wearing Clothes' (1996), Dunger has recorded an abundance of albums with numerous (and increasingly bizarre) fellow-Nordic players; with prog-rockers Soundtrack Of Our Lives, jazz troupe Esjörn Svennsons Trio and avant-garde percussionist ensemble Kroumata being amongst the many. Which makes the idea of an earnestly authentic country-blues album made in collaboration with Louisville, Kentucky's most twisted genius Will Oldham, seem pretty straight-laced by comparison. And although Dunger trekked all the way to the cornfields and the cow-sheds of rural America to record with someone able and willing to unlock his hidden strengths, it's not fair to say that he's bowed down to a greater talent or allowed Oldham to become his puppeteer. No, Dunger keeps full control of his ship, with his fractured innocent songwriting and his rootsy croon (somewhere between pre-Fat 'N' Hat Club Van Morrison and CWAS favourite Josh Rouse) at the helm, whilst Oldham and some erstwhile Palace brethren hoist the sails. With such artistic persuasions and personnel involved the whole album inevitably feels like it was cut with straw between its teeth and a crumbling porch beneath its feet. Which might explain how the lilting blues-folk ramble of Last Night I Dream Of Mississippi feels like a secret sister song to The Stones's Factory Girl or how First Runaway and Hey Mama both sound like lost Leadbelly recordings. There are, of course, shades of Oldham's back catalogue in the musical tapestries but there's also a respectable but not predictable stab at Neil Young's most likeable country-rock albums (specifically 'Harvest' and the lesser known 'American Stars 'N' Bars'). Dunger's vocal aerobics do sporadically become a little discomforting but his intuitive posse know how to steer him back on course. With Will Oldham's tender backing tones, Jessica Billey's vintage violin-playing, Peter Townsend's brushed drums and Paul Oldham's crisp clutter-free production, Dunger is never far from safe and sympathetic hands. But again that's not to say he can't cut it on his own, as the seriously lovely piano-ballad Tribute To Tim Hardin attests. These adventures in roots-driven rediscovery are usually blighted by belligerent attempts to rescue flagging careers (see Eric Clapton if you really need convincing), but Nicolai Dunger has turned himself around here without any ill-intention or phoney reinvention. High time then, that this lost cowboy from Sweden was allowed in from the cold.

Adrian Pannett
January-February 2003