Welcome to the first installment of Oeuvreblogging, a new column in which – inspired by some of the fine folks doing the same thing for songs – I’ll attempt to write about every album by my favorite bands, one at a time. I’m starting with Nicolai Dunger, whose catalog is perhaps too formidable, but future artists will include obvious ones such as Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams and some surprising lesser-knowns as well. Consider this the Rawkblog’s very own All Music Guide.
For many of us, downloading music from MP3 blogs and bittorrent sites has become so natural and logical that acquiring it any other way seems almost quaint. But it was only a few years ago that you actually had to trust reviews and skim message boards to find new bands in the still-underground world of indie – I once spent six months trying to find Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s I See a Darkness in record stores. True story! And so I remember exactly when and where I first heard most of the more obscure bands and artists I fell in love with in that era, as opposed to remembering where I was (at my computer) when I was downloading the latest leak (4 in the afternoon, usually).
In writing this, then, it’s strange that I can’t for the life of me figure out how I discovered Nicolai Dunger. I remember when I bought this album, though. I used to dig through the $1 used bin at Salzer’s Records in Ventura like a miner panning for gold; this remains my best find ever. I’m reasonably sure I hadn’t heard a note of This Cloud is Learning before picking it up, but the album was quick to make itself comfy in my stereo. (Remember when we still had stereos and not just laptops? Ah, memories…) [Continue reading…]
Dunger is a bit of a chameleon, changing his style (though never his substance) to match up with his mood or collaborators. On This Cloud, it’s the other way around – the Swedish singer/songwriter is backed by the band the Soundtrack of Our Lives, a pretty great group in its own right (2001’s Behind the Music is a fine collection of retro ’60s jams) but one that sacrifices much of its musical personality on this release. With Dunger’s stylistic shifts, it’s hard to say who was really at the helm here, but regardless, the collaboration yielded his best album, a somber, near-flawless folk disc that recalls Jeff Buckley (the falsetto-laden “Butterflyin’ Friend”) and Van Morrison (“What Tomorrow”) alike.
“This Town” opens the album with a double-tracked Dunger singing and strumming, the mirror-image recordings shifted apart just enough to give the song an intriguingly fractured feel. Along with solo acoustic album closer “All I Know,” it’d be fine fodder for mixtapes housing Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. Elsewhere, songs such as “If I Were a Little Star” turn more ethereal; “Organ” is a lone organ track, evoking Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and joined only by some found-sound bird chirping. “What Tomorrow” and “Something In The Way” (not a Nirvana cover) are more full-band and upbeat, especially “Something,” with its do-do-do chorus and optimistic lyrics: “Something in the way you move, little darling / yes it’s something in the way you talk that makes me realize…make me happy.” I won’t deny that the singer sounds a bit like Morrison, a common criticism of him – but here, at least, it’s an asset.
The best song on the disc is the gorgeous “Butterflyin’ Friend,” which floats along on a cloud of tsk-tsking cymbals, ahh’ing backing singers and electric jazz chords. His voice is tender and charismatic, only breaking the mood unintentionally when he pronounces his J’s as Y’s – “she was yumping around everywhere / showing me colors that I couldn’t see” – but a few Yens Lekman albums later, I guess that’s just a Swedish thing.
The rest of Dunger’s catalog – which we’ll get to in future installments of this column – explores jazz, Will Oldham-backed country-folk, and psychadelia, but those albums often sound like he’s still, indeed, exploring. This Cloud is Learning sounds like home.
(Buy the 2005 reissue of This Cloud is Learning, with two bonus tracks, from Amazon)
Oeuvreblogging is a column exploring the catalogs of our favorite musicians. Click below for more.