Rusk (Unni Løvlid, Vegar Vårdal, and Frode Haltli)
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Rusk (Unni Løvlid, Vegar Vårdal, and Frode Haltli)
Rusk
Heilo/Grappa (www.grappa.no)

cd cover I find myself wondering what members of the vast popular music audience might make of Rusk, the trio of vocalist Unni Løvlid, fiddler Vegar Vårdal, and accordionist Frode Haltli. Rusk and their music derive from the Finnskogen area of Norway's Hedmark county, a rural woodland east and north of Oslo, site of a seventeenth-century immigration from Finland. It does take some effort to settle into an appreciation of Rusk's traditional repertoire, but the effort opens up stunning musicianship, sunny, high-spirited vocals, and narrative tunes, all clearly and deftly produced.

Listen!
"Gjeiteleiken og Sparvelille" starts with a halting two-step, the fiddle supported by accordion, melody notes characteristically hammered-on from a step below or pulled-off from a step above for a yodeling effect, Unni Løvlid's bright scat vocal taking lead on the second tune, occasional short measures keeping the mood off-balance, formal yet light. "Rusk Opp I Ring" begins with a progressive waltz round reminiscent of "Ring Christmas Bells," Løvlid's vocal entering with one of musical history's great rolled r's, her rendition perhaps a bit dramatically over the top, fiddle and accordion providing inventive depth on the bridge. A rolling waltz with accents on 3 and 1, "Ved Rindedals Klipper" suggests maritime themes, perhaps even Popeye, Løvlid's vocal overflowing with bright vitality. "Den Springdansen Som Puken Spilte Da Gruekjerka Brann" is a common-time instrumental with emphases on beats 1,3 and 4, the rhythmic stagger flowing from advance of the third beat almost sufficient to create triplets.

"Cecilia og Rallaren/Vals" presents a slow, dark waltz, low fiddle tightly followed by accordion, leading into a narrative, accordion-backed vocal passage in common time that wouldn't be out of place in a Brecht-Weil production, before exiting on another arch waltz. "Middasminen" begins with a low, menacing accordion drone below uncharacteristically low and emotional vocal, accordion waxing, dissonant and dramatic, before fiddle enters to accelerate the song into speedy polka, the vocal also rising in tone and speed right up to a sudden finish. The liquid, swooping fiddle solo "Halling Etter Halteguten" is all delicate fury, and on "Lyrisk Vals," a slow, marginally dissonant intro resolves into a majestic, plodding, bass-heavy, ominous accordion waltz; a riveting solo.

As with most traditional music, a popular audience might initially find Rusk a combination of the hokey and the incomprehensible, but approaching it with an open mind will offer seductive musical vistas. - Jim Foley

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