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Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002

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Bound by Nothing in the Search for Beauty
Anja Garbarek is not drowning but waving

By Amos Tang

Reviewing an album like Smiling & Waving is not easy; in this seemingly easy listening record, there is too much to discern. You have to take note of every little detail in the variation of the tone of her voice, the backing harmonization, the ways instruments are used to create certain moods, as well as her influences. Chances are you are still going to miss out on a lot even after several listens. An obvious reference point would be our dear 'woman with the child in her heart' Björk Gudmundsdottir, considering that both of them hail from the same section of the globe. However, claiming that Ms Garbarek sounds like Björk is really like saying Jeff Buckley inherited the vocal style from his father.

While Björk has already proven herself to be one of the most important female musicians of our time, Anja's name has seldom been mentioned, which is really a pity as both of them are such musicians as to be shaping the new music landscape of our time. Another comparison would be Ms Nordenstam from Sweden. This is more relevant because the two reclusive voices are essentially similar. The difference is that while Stina sounds like she is an innocent child descended into a corrupted world only to suffer from confusion, loss, and endless departures, all from leaving her heart too wide open, Anja sounds like she is a young maverick taking a much more cautious approach to life, keeping more to herself.

The latter may have actually realised the resemblance in the quality of their voices. Anja seems to carefully and cleverly avoid sounding like Stina by varying her vocal techniques and her song arrangements, which is really a blessing because one Stina Nordenstam is more than enough. The world does not need a clone. If I say Smiling & Waving is a deceptively happy title for such a deceptively easy listening record, you get the point that there is a facade to the record and a personality who made it. Like Black Box Recorder's underrated (the real musicians are always underrated) album Facts of Life, Anja's intention is never to beguile anybody; she just makes the pills of cruel reality easier to swallow. Anyway, contrary to popular belief, so-called truths are not always the best for a person's mental well being.

I will just make an almost impossible attempt to describe the sound of the album here. If you take the whisper of a more cautious, even claustrophobic Sarah Nixey from Black Box Recorder, distill the ethereal beauty out of the Cocteau Twins' counter point and find the convex mirror reflection of Björk's playfulness and quirkiness, mix everything in a glass, add water and stir, how would that taste like? Musically, fuse the haunting soundscape of Broadcast with a good deal of jazz influence from her father Jan Garbarek as well as the Aphex Twin influenced breakbeats, you get half the picture. If Jane Siberry's music is bound by beauty, Anja Garbarek is bound by a rule that states that you can be bound by nothing in the search for beauty. Let's head into the album, chances are that you are going to be sucked into the whirlpool created by the inspired use of strings that is not dissimilar to that of Björk's 'Selmasongs' or 'Homogenic'.

The difference, however, is the effect they have on the listeners. While Björk managed to create an anthem-like quality in tracks like 'New Day' or 'Bachelorette', Anja's deployment of strings can be melancholic, intriguing, haunting, even suffocating at times, or all at the same time. It is much more disturbing that you do not know what to expect next. A track like 'You Know' perfectly illustrates this: the use of brass to create a fairytale nightmare kind of setting, then Anja's interrogation comes in, accompanied by the sinister string, depicts this scary marathon of imagination. Sure, you can never know where she went that morning, or where she spent that evening, but she leaves you pondering why. 'The Diver', which features the vocal of Robert Wyatt, tells the story of a diver, the world's best diver to be specific, smiling and waving so beautifully, but the irony is he cannot swim!

When Anja's voice rises from a whisper, it signifies a switch from one level of dull reality to another of fantasy and escape. There is not a single weak track on this album; every song is superbly-crafted. With this, she has successfully topped her last album, 'Balloon Mood', which might have been more stylistically varied, but her sophomore effort puts Anja up there with Björk, Jane Siberry and Stina Nordenstam. So here you are, another talent has surfaced from Scandinavia; it leaves you wondering what to expect next from this sublime land of endless creativity.

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002


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  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

Sexual Identity Checks
Richard Lord reviews Singapore drama in Spring 2002.

Leaping From Page to Stage
Richard Lord reviews stage adaptations.

Related Links

The official Anja Garbarek site
External link.

Review of Smiling & Waving
External link.

Another review of Smiling & Waving
External link.

Björk official site
External link.

Official Stina Nordenstam site
External link.


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