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The road to musical stardom isn’t exactly littered with the carcasses of professional athletes, but the few who’ve dared to walk it have found the journey more painful than a career-ending knee injury. Consider the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose mighty “Super Bowl Shuffle” just missed the Top 40 while the team was gearing up for the big game. To date, the Bears haven’t issued a follow-upor made a return trip to the Super Bowl. Coincidence? Not likely.
And then there’s Terry Bradshaw, who actually scored a Top 10 hit during the bicentennial year with a cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Twenty years later, Bradshaw pressed his luck again, releasing the widely ignored Terry Bradshaw Sings Christmas Songs for the Whole Family. Alas, pop-music audiences, it seems, are like championship games against the Cowboys: You can’t win ’em all.
Enter Nicolai Dunger, a professional-soccer-player-turned-songwriting-obsessive who, at last count, had penned some 300 titles. Tranquil Isolation, Dunger’s second U.S. release, collects just 12 of them, but the percentage of keepers is high enough to make you curious about the other 288. If they’re all this ramshackle and lovely, the man’s working on quite the canon. He might even redeem the wide world of sports from Bradshaw’s handiwork.
Dunger was born in Sweden, but to judge from this mostly unplugged disc, his musical homeland is the American South. Tranquil Isolation was recorded during a single week at a Shelbyville, Ky., studio, and it traffics in all manner of the region’s aural idioms, from backwoods folk (“Wonders”) to dirty blues (“Ol’ Lovers”) to the even-dirtier-blues style known as chooglin’ (“Me, Ray and Jr”). For good measure, Dunger even throws in a fractured piano ballad (“First Runaway”) that seems modeled in part on old-time spirituals.
Tranquil Isolation positively reeks of cultural cross-dressing. Dunger’s accent, for example, is fully Americanized, and though he could probably deliver a fine country-fried take on “Dancing Queen,” there isn’t even the slightest nod to his legendary countrymen and -women in ABBAmuch less one to contemporary teen-pop schlockmeister Max Martin. Instead, Dunger signifies mainly as a rootsierand far weirderversion of Ryan Adams: He’s young, talented, and clearly hung up on the productivity thing.
On Tranquil Isolation, Dunger is aided and abetted by a band of y’alternative deviants that includes Palace siblings Paul and Will Oldham, violinist Jessica Billey, and a drummer named Peter Townsend. Under their influence, Dunger ditties such as the album’s fiddle-streaked opener, “Last Night I Dreamt of Mississippi,” and a four-minute hootenanny called “Hey Mama” become shuffling, front-porch idylls, redolent of iced tea, cotton fields, and sleeping hound dogs that tend to drool a lot.
And that’s all before the bandleader even opens his mouth. Dunger’s voice is a raspy, whiskey-soaked tenor, and though his singing style also recalls Adams’, his main vocal model seems to be Rufus Wainwright. “Hundred Songs,” a simple lover’s lament tricked out with a sly, cabaret-style arrangement, is a case in point. Dunger doesn’t have Wainwright’s multioctave range, but his slurred, marble-mouthed phrasing is similar. And although the track is thoroughly homespun, it’s also an engaging piece of Wainwrightian musical theater. All that’s missing is a high-kicking chorus line of Future Farmers of America decked out in dusty overalls.
As a wordsmith, Dunger mostly eschews the pithy one-liners of his country cousins in favor of poetic ambiguity, usually of the mordant variety. On “Truth About the Blues,” he trades lines with Will Oldham, conjuring up a vaguely guilt-ridden present”Go and love everything/Apart from what you’ve done”on top of a defiantly remembered past: “I tell you I’ve loved the sun my friend/From the day that I was five.” What’s it mean? Hard to say. Only the track’s minor chords and hushed snare drum seem to know for sure. “Ol’ Lovers” is another dark enigma, a slow-motion rag about, maybe, the little death, sung soulfully en route to the graveyard. “I need to get it over/Get it over quick,” Dunger croons over the song’s fumbled chord changes. “So that I might find some peace of mind.”
Despite its pacific title, Tranquil Isolation is willfully difficult in places. Paul Oldham produced the disc (with Will no doubt looking over his shoulder), and the Oldham boys’ congenital weirdness sometimes leads Dunger down gratuitously odd paths. “Good Man,” for instance, suffers from stylistic self-consciousness, lurching awkwardly from gentle folk ballad to bracing avant stomp. And set-closer “Going Home for Christmas” could be a pretty piano instrumental if it weren’t for a distracting blast of low-in-the-mix white noise and, as the song fades, the sound of someone trudging through snow.
Those slight missteps aside, the album is mostly a lovely piece of slightly warped country-folk. Given Dunger’s Euro rootsnot to mention the Oldhams’ penchant for postmodernizing just about everything they touchthe disc could easily scan as a carefully contrived pose. But that’s where Dunger and No Depression-dabbler Adams part ways most dramatically: Ultimately, the strangest thing about Tranquil Isolation is how genuine it seems.
The strangest thing about the Anomoanon’s new one, Asleep Many Years in the Wood, is that it’s such a rockin’ country record. Once you get past the band’s nearly unpronounceable name and the album’s Rip Van Winkled title, you’re left with a barroom full of drunken swagger, neck-cracking chord changes, and the occasional dollop of top-shelf slide guitar. The disc does sometimes seem slapdash, but compared with most standard-issue alt-country product, it’s a total hoot.
Ned Oldham is the ringleader here, and he just can’t resist throwing goofsthe sounds of slurped beer, crying babies, and a smoker’s coughinto the mix. The songs all survive his pranks, though, and when the Anomoanon plays it even halfway straight, the group taps effortlessly into the same soulful twang that made the Band such an American originaleven if it was led by a Canadian. Indeed, on tracks such as “Sadie and Rudy,” a backwoods take on the Adam and Eve tale complete with consensual serpent-handling, Oldham sings in a voice that could be Richard Manuel doing his best Levon Helm impersonation: At no point would you be surprised if he started singing about the night they drove old Dixie down.
But that wouldn’t fit with the album’s new-Southern Renaissance vibe. Recorded partly in Kentucky, partly in rural Virginia, Asleep Many Years in the Wood has the feel of a lost-weekend jam that eventually jelled into a coherent set of songs as the players finally started to sober up. The album art even includes a photo of what purports to be the Anomoanon’s private-label bourbon perched alluringly on a windowsill.
A trio of ringing country-rock songs anchors the disc. “Tongue and Heart” is the best of the bunch, with its languorous and jangling verse section wired to a goose-bump-inducing chorus and a set of lovably dopey lyrics. “I can feel what I’m feeling/
And believe I know just what to say,” Oldham sings, sounding like a wide-eyed kid having his first taste of being struck dumb by beauty. “But when I look in your eyes and I open my mouth/It seems that something gets between the twain.” And on the disc’s title track, the band mainlines high-grade Meat Puppets, serving up an amphetamine rush of melody chased hard with an ace Allman Brothers-style lead.
“Kick Back,” however, finds the Anomoanon swearing off the hard stuff and serving up a sloppy, riff-happy rocker that might as well be the group’s theme song. With a cowbell marking loose time, Oldham and second guitarist Aram Stith alternate almost randomly between crackling open notes and crunching power chords, slapping and tickling their way toward the song’s Stonesian chorus. “Your left and your right brains are pointing in different directions,” Oldham warbles midway through, singing, seemingly, mainly to himself.
That particular dilemma could simply be the effect of too much booze, of course. Alcohol does have a tendency to make folks a bit incoherent. But on the gracefully shambling Asleep Many Years in the Wood, it also makes for one hell of a good time. CP