Live review from Punkt 2009 / Navyelectre
On record a solo affair, in performance Navyelectre's Jonas Howden Sjøvaag's performing quartet took his evocative writing—mostly taken from The Mourning—and gave it both greater vitality and improvisational energy. The music was a curiously attractive but often dark mix of repetitive minimalism, indirect classicism, at times oblique yet poetically effective lyrics, and occasional pop beats. Sjøvaag's delivery was understated; while there was no shortage of subtle drama, it felt somehow more honest than that of Philco Fiction's Turid Alida Solberg. Perhaps it's because Navyelectre has been around longer, and is now on the cusp of its third album, following The Mourning and its self-titled 2003 independent debut, but where Mattis Myrland's show was appealing in its almost naïve sentimentality, and Metamorphic attractive in its hypnotic use of texture, there was a confidence and comfort onstage that made Navyelectre's show the clear highlight of Punkt Elope.
Not only a compelling songwriter and nuanced deliverer of his dark-hued lyrics, Sjøvaag also proved to be a fine drummer, with the group opening up his writing, at points, for strong solos from keyboardist Andreas Ulvo. Ulvo has been helping to transform Matthias Eick's more introspective and acoustic The Door (ECM, 2008) into something more assertive in performance. Here, he similarly metamorphosed Sjøvaag's "Then spring exploded into light" into near-fusion glory, with a fiery synth solo driven by the drummer's loose approach—far more interpretive than on the album—and guitarist Smørdal's quirky accompaniment. Smørdal was also featured later in the set, demonstrating his roots in Frisell, but equally asserting his own voice, less inherently inward-looking and, at one point, even approaching overdriven and aggressively strummed chordal frenzy.
Myrland contributed backup vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonium to the set, his voice soaring harmonically above Sjøvaag's, but it was the drummer's ability to place so much meaning into the simplest phrase that made him the most commanding singer at Punkt Elope. While he has little to do with Leonard Cohen in terms of subject matter or songwriting approach, Sjøvaag does share a profound command of language, and an ability to deliver his own words better than someone with, perhaps, a better voice by conventional measure. It's no small challenge to take solitarily conceived and recorded music into performance by a larger ensemble, where the writer has to trust others to interpret his music. As good as its Punkt Elope performance was, it's a shame there's no live recording with this group; it would be a valuable contextual contrast with Sjøvaag's studio material.
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