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Nanook’s naïveté a sincere delight

Matthew Solarski | Thursday, April 7, 2005

At the imaginary “37th Annual Concept Album Awards Ceremony in the Sky” (affectionately known as “The Tommies”), Nanook of the North’s “The Täby Tapes” would have glaciered over the competition and emerged with more awards – bronzed miniature pinball machines, naturally – than there are Inuit words for snow. The Swedish act would have garnered “most whimsical concept,” “most far-fetched concept,” “most ridiculous concept that actually kinda works somehow,” and, most notably, “the Honorary Bono Award for Unabashed Idealism” for the endearingly naïve track “Israel and Palestine – a Solution.”As far as concept records go, Nanook’s resides in a class all its own. Invoking the title character of Robert Flaherty’s celebrated 1922 quasi-documentary “Nanook of the North,” multi-instrumentalists Mattias Olsson and Olle Söderström weave a loose narrative across 12 tracks that takes Nanook from the Canadian Arctic to the sterile Stockholm suburb Täby. Along the way, Nanook joins a band, fights a dragon, outdoes the Camp David Accords, duets with several of Sweden’s finest female vocalists of the 1980s and debates the verity of love in postmodern suburbia. Bizarre? Certainly. Ridiculous? Perhaps. Entirely unique and oddly enchanting? Quite.Nanook excels on the songcraft front. However outlandish the subject matter, the songs on “The Täby Tapes” remain fun and accessible and abound in a certain wistful vitality. Olsson and Söderström utilize a smorgasbord of instruments, some of which are possibly made-up, including guitars, keyboards, accordions, theremin, orchestron, optigan, omnichord, stylophone, and percussion. With such an impressive musical arsenal comes substantial risk of meandering, ennui-inducing arrangements or needless instrumental flourishes, but Nanook showcases crisp refinement throughout, with a refreshing hint of lo-fi.What distinguishes Nanook and makes “The Täby Tapes” so richly affecting, however, is the vocal interplay between Nanook and his coterie of female duet partners. Olsson and Söderström construct many of the lyrical passages in call-and-response fashion, carving rather telling roles for the male and female voices and creating some often fascinating dialogue. On “Karin Boye’s Grave,” vocalist Camela Leierth embodies the ghost of Karin. She and Nanook alternate, “We would have loved your style / I would have loved to be alive / … I could have held your hands / you could have played in our band” and then harmonize, proclaiming, “we could have spread revolution through this land.” Despite an upbeat arrangement, the conditional perfect tense lends this track an air of melancholy, along the lines of Hemingway’s famous “isn’t it pretty to think so?”Also fabulous is “St. George and the Dragon,” where Irma Schultz plays the misunderstood mythical beast to Nanook’s brazenly self-righteous St. George. “So you think I’m just the village moron?” the latter taunts, “we’ll ponder that when you go down.” The song’s closing exchange reveals Nanook may not be so naïve after all – Nanook begins, with Schultz responding, “I’m bound to be a hero / but I am unarmed / easier for me then / but I’m just a girl / well, I will tell nothing of that to the world.”Nanook of the North’s many talents culminate and coalesce on “Forget it Jenny, Love is Just a Privilege for the Rich,” the album’s final track. Here, Nanook becomes the jaded postmodern lover who rationalizes the futility of love in sublimely witty fashion: “love is just a privilege for the rich, you see / cause love requires time / and time is money.” Vocalist Malin Olofsson retorts, “No! Love is universal to humanity / it gets to you no matter of economy.” “Forget it” climaxes in a chorus of la la la’s – a fittingly ambiguous conclusion to a record that succeeds on so many contradictory levels.