Hanne Hukkelberg has been quietly producing brilliant music for some time, but it was only with this year’s critically acclaimed ‘Featherbrain’ that she finally broke onto the British music scene. Tonight at The Lexington she expresses surprise that so many people have turned up, and then gets on with surely the most innovative, mesmerising and disquieting set this venue has seen in a while.
Given Hukkelberg’s penchant for using found and everyday objects, it was always going to be interesting to see how this would be recreated on stage. Alas, there’s no sewing machine or whistling kettle, but there is an enormous fleet of guitar pedals covering the floor, percussion and keyboards. These combine for a particularly surreal version of ‘Featherbrain’, beginning as strands of disparate sounds that are gradually caught and held loosely together like cotton on the wind. On next song, ‘Noah’, we get the first real glimpse of the diversity and range of Hukkelberg’s vocal, which is as elusive and difficult to pin down as the deathly lyrics: “We are sinking down below/Everything’s sour in rain drowns all away now/Ice and ears and swollen heads…”
This sense of unknown menace permeates ‘The Time and I and What We Make’, which is full of the discordant arrangements that make Hukkelberg’s sound so distinctive. She and band mate, Mai Elise Solberg, scream like harpies calling ships to the rocks, while a guitar quietly screams. The live effect is unsettling and utterly compelling. Considering that Hukkelberg is sporting a headdress made from evergreens and is dressed like a 1960s department store Christmas elf, it’s also pretty disconcerting. Like the Andrex puppy suddenly going feral.
Hukkelberg now turns to her back catalogue, giving us the woozily beautiful ‘Midnight Sun Dream’ from 2009’s ‘Blood from a Stone’. More accessible and less discordant, it’s possible to see the origins of her later work in the theatrical washes and soundscapes. ‘Bandy Riddles’ lays bare other influences, revealing the jazz quality to her vocal and a surprising 90s aesthetic with some grungy guitars. There are echoes of the Pixies and even Hole, but it’s unlikely these bands ever recorded a song in a 7/8 time signature.
On ‘Crack’ there’s a hint of spoken word performance recalling that other Norwegian purveyor of avant-garde folk, Jenny Hval, while ‘I Sing You’ is David-Lynch-sinister – it could be a love song or something far more threatening and obsessive. This Pinter-esque feeling of unnamed fear reaches its zenith in ‘Too Good To Be True’ as Hukkelberg sings, “Do you want my eyes?/…. I’d rather not know, not see/What I see, it frightens me.” It climaxes with a visceral crescendo that sees her crying out like a banshee before frenetically clapping her hands together, as if words and then vocals have failed her. ‘All My Devils’ is therefore a fitting conclusion – a piano-led epiphany in which Hukkelberg resigns herself to her demons, and we along with her, after what has been a journey through the underworld of her mind.
Words by Theresa Heath
Photo by Helen F. Kennedy