Various Artists – Looking Down EP

Various Artists
Looking Down EP

Out on Norway’s 35G Records, the Looking Down EP features four folk songs that are throwbacks to a style of folk that doesn’t really seem to have caught on in a genuine way with many American musicians. There are lots of images of ghosts and souls and forests. Ring frontman Flip Andersen even explains in the liner notes that his song was written in “the place where the woods turn to love.” The musicians drop any pretenses of cynicism or tongue-in-cheek humor, and it helps them sell these songs when our first reaction would be to dismiss them.
A successful time warp of an EP, everything here sounds as it’s not from any particular era; this could just as easily be a tiny folk 7″ from the early 60s that you somehow came across in the dollar pile of the record store. It takes some digging on the web to even get more information on it, and that’s part of its appeal. Especially because these bands have so little recognition in America, you feel like you’re the first person to ever hear these songs. It’s like unearthing a record that everyone else has somehow missed. Credit for this goes especially to the engaging voices and styles of the musicians. The mood of the songs, their instrumentation, and the overall sound of the recording play together to almost leave you guessing at what you’re listening to. Not nearly as silly as it could have been, the EP swims when it should sink under the weight of its own baroque pretensions.
Norway’s Groan Alone performs the EP’s title track, a story of a dead man searching for his soul. His voice is eerily familiar, as are those of most of the singers. In this case, his voice is a less-affected Gram Parsons. The song shares with Parsons the same kind of genuine upfront-ness that can’t be faked and which makes your ears pick it out of a pile. It’s the song here that’s most successful at blending the EP’s murky yet romantic mood with a kind of conversational lightness.
The Orchid Pool‘s “Have It” and Ring‘s “Path to Freedom” use beautifully subtle builds and stunningly tasteful instrumentation to put their songs across. “Have It” is all perfectly chosen harmonies and what sounds like grumbling piano, keyboard, strings, and acoustic guitars. Tony Paglia and Karl Morten Dahl (of Aquarium Poppers and the head of 35G Records) created the song by swapping MP3s across the Atlantic. Of all the bands that I’ve heard boasting of creating their music this way, without even necessarily having met each other, this is the first time I’ve heard the method come to such fruition. Ring’s “Path to Freedom” turns on such slight changes that you’re just getting accustomed to a verse when it takes a tiny turn into the warm and understated chorus.
Sweden’s Peter Scion closes the EP with “Like Ghosts.” It’s the least successful song here, though still effective in carrying on the overall mood. He’s a bit too pleased to play along with the ghost story undertones that the other bands only hinted at and ends up overdoing it a bit. It feels a bit too much like a put-on where the others more fully inhabit their songs. It’s a minor criticism of an EP that is thoroughly entertaining and engaging.