Annbjørg Lien - Khoom Loy

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Annbjørg Lien
Khoom Loy
Compass Records, US / Grappa, Norway

The hardanger fiddle has an unreal, mystical quality to it; the fiddle’s design allows for drones and trills that can conjure up images of blowing snow and lightning bugs in the forest. It’s a delicious instrument that, in the hands of a master like Annbjørg Lien, teeters between beauty and danger. Lien learned both folk and classical music from her father, and she has vaulted herself into becoming a great experimentress on both the hardanger fiddle and the nyckelharpa.

Khoom Loy is her eighth solo album (Lien is also part of groups such as String Sisters, and the mighty Bukkene Bruse). This recording highlights Lien’s Norwegian fiddle expertise amidst a hefty dose of world music influences. There are a number of guests, including a bevy of Indian musicians, as well as a string quartet. Where earlier recordings in the Lien catalog are more ‘purist,’ she has never been afraid to back down from mixing her compositions with rock and jazz influences. The high point for this reviewer had to be Lien’s Baba Yaga (1999), which was uncompromising, fierce, boundary-stretching and weird.

Khoom Loy seems more grounded, with the Indian musicians adding an earthy presence to the album (as on “Til,” and the intriguing “Den Største Daarlighed”). There is a dose of what could be considered progressive jazz/rock here, which motors on through the opening “Tareq.” Lien certainly seems to want to cover a lot of exotic inspiration throughout the record (the title track, “Khoom Loy,” is Thai for ‘paper lanterns,’ but does not – oddly enough – sound at all Thai, but more like Celtic-lite).

Lien’s incredible command of her fiddles cannot be faulted, but I do wish that Khoom Loy had a more stripped down sound to let her instruments shine through. The production here sometimes leaves Lien swamped in the mix, and the album founders in search of cohesiveness. The rock elements go for bombast, and whenever the compositions get dialed back, the more contemplative moments are welcome. There is a burning intensity to the hardanger fiddle at the beginning of “Needle’s Eye,” and that is just Lien alone; but then, the tune heads off into a pummeling crunch, concluding with the Kristiansand String Quartet. So, the glossy production does not help the album, as it never seems to strike a balance between extremes. I kept hoping for more: of less. - Lee Blackstone

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