According to their press release, the three Lithuanian women who make up Sen Svaja (the name roughly translates from the Prussian for "with your own") possess origins of pixies. While that intriguing idea of their ancestry may or may not be true (who can be certain in the Baltic or Nordic countries?), there's certainly some dark magic about the music they make on this, their second full album. The title means 'the dowry from the swamp,' and it's filled with riches from across Europe; mostly their homeland, but some songs have their beginnings as far away as Turkey, Britain, and Norway. "Ralia Rolia" sets the tone for the disc, a shepherd's song that seems to be steeped in shadow: there's an insistent zither riff, some brooding bass – the subtle programming complements the arrangement – and the very eerie mix of the three voices. It really does contain something of the otherworldly. Maybe not a swamp, perhaps a portal hidden in slab of rock that leads to a stranger world.
The sense of strangeness is punctured when they sing in English for Jean Ritchie's "One I Love." It's good, but having words that sound familiar strips it of its magical qualities (of course, in plenty of countries the lyrics will be alien). But they come roaring back with "Mislinčius," a Lithuanian song about a jilted young woman who finds herself pregnant. Such a commonplace folk music topic, but it's delivered by voices that swirl like a stream before moving on to a simple instrumental coda. It's stripped-back, but still filled with exquisite sorrow that lets it soar.
The Turkish song "Erzurum" is similarly woven with voices and zither, while the wildness that's unleashed in the refrain "Open the gates release the grace" in "My Space" arrives as the fury peaks in a traditional Lithuanian song about women's rights.
The closer, "Epas," starts off gently enough, building, pulling back, layering the voices and utilising a clever arrangement to make a lot from a little and do it very, very well. But when they have the innate magic of those three voices together, it's hard to fail – the last segment of the long piece is close to angelic.
Sen Svaja claim to be post-folk, whatever that might mean. Sometimes labels seem so pointless. Ultimately, they're using mostly traditional tunes as a springboard for some music that keeps one foot in the past and the other quite firmly in the 21st century. If this is their dowry, it's overflowing with riches. - Chris Nickson
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