This Manchester-based brother/sister folk duo have found quite a striking and distinct niche for themselves: adventurous reinterpretations of traditional (and largely forgotten) Scandinavian folk songs. The idea for the group originated from an old Norwegian song that their mother taught them as children, resulting in a life-long fascination with regional musical traditions and a great deal of exhaustive archival research at Norwegian libraries. Kalbakken are not mere revivalists, however: many of the arrangements here are quite wild, raw, and occasionally harsh, sometimes even veering into the microtonal avant garde (Kirsty and David come from punk/improv backgrounds, notably).
There is a surprising amount of stylistic ground covered here, but I was most struck by the ballads (such as the opening somber serenade to a cow or the achingly beautiful Swedish lament "Hvem kan segle"). However, they are equally adept at drone ("Sa Klarnet Livet" and the brilliant "Lalling from Trysil") and the all-too-rare jaw harp stomp (a warping of a traditional lullaby entitled "Bansul"). Those are just the few that immediately stand out though- the whole album is quite strong (albeit with a few exceptions, of course).
Aside from the quality and uniqueness of the actual music, I was stuck by how much effort and love has clearly been poured into this project. Aside from the above-mentioned library scavenging, Kalbakken have gone so far as to deliberately sequence the album to coincide with the passing of the seasons. Furthermore, the album is packaged in an elegant letter-pressed cardstock case and comes with a booklet that translates all the lyrics to English and explains each song's origin. I like amateur music historians with excellent aesthetic sense.
My only minor grievance is that Kalbakken's enthusiasm occasionally crosses the line into shrillness: for example, the plague-themed instrumental "Hesten fra Fornes" is unnervingly busy at times, while Kirsty's vocals for the barroom braggadocio of "Bjorka fra Bjaland" call to mind a meth-addled Lisa Gerrard. Usually, however, her vocals are charmingly idiosyncratic and powerful (and she is an excellent violinist). It would be nice if their sound was reined in a bit more on future albums, but I hope that can be achieved without sacrificing any character. Experimental/freak folk is not generally my favorite genre (quite far from it, actually), but Kirsty and David exhibit a passion and a refreshing wide-eyed sincerity on their debut that is damn hard to resist. Inspired stuff. 8/10 -- Anthony D'Amico (4 June, 2009)