Opsvik & Jennings Commuter Anthems

[Rune Grammofon; 2007]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: abstract jazz, free improv, avant-garde, neo-traditional
Others: Bill Frisell, Tin Hat Trio, Hala Strana, Friends of Dean Martinez

Commuter Anthems resides at that crossroads where ECM-style Scandinavian jazz fusion intersects with the traditional Norwegian folk/improv with which Rune Grammofon is commonly associated. The sophomore release from Opsvik & Jennings (a.k.a. New York City resident and Olso expatriate Eivind Opsvik and guitarist Aaron Jennings, a Tulsa native who resides in The Big Apple as well), the album uses a loosely-grounded jazz template as a starting point and integrates a pastoral ambience informed by a Northern European sensibility that owes as much to Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits as it does to the Americana-tinged jazz of genre-bending guitarists such as Bill Frisell.

Although Commuter Anthems’ meticulously crafted arrangements betray the record as a laboriously assembled studio effort, Opsvik & Jennings’ production, which incorporates room sounds, field recordings, and distinctively miked instruments that seem to exist in discrete space, imparts the album with a warm, uninhibited tone that aligns it with the more organic end of the electro-acoustic spectrum. Much of the record could be accurately described as cinematic and moody, but the moods evoked by tracks such as “Port Authority,” for instance, tend to be nebulous and dissociative, as if composed as the soundtrack to a fugue state.

Opsvik’s double bass playing throughout Commuter Anthems, particularly on the more downbeat tracks such as “Ways,” steeps the music in noirish overtones that are reflected in its smoky, monochromatic cast. The album’s 10 tracks run the gamut from spare, folk-tinged guitar-driven tracks rife with an inherent melodicism (“The Last Country Village”) to stranger and considerably more abstract pieces such as “I’ll Scrounge Along,” but in each case, the rhythm section, which consists of Opsvik covering both bass and drum duties, provides these tracks with a visceral edge that keeps them rooted in the realist tradition and prevents them from wandering too deeply into the realm of fantasia. “Lorinda Sea” acts as the album’s centerpiece, with its fractured Tin Pan Alley instrumentation, trademark lap steel courtesy of Jennings, and eerie celesta figures, and it generates a dreamlike atmosphere that seems to evoke the sordid underbelly of the Midwestern United States.

Opsvik & Jennings allow themselves to succumb to anachronistic flights of fancy throughout Commuter Anthems and implement an angular expressionistic style that draws (at times heavily) from its Eastern European folk roots. The duo employ an evocative and diverse musical palette that includes a number of antiquated instruments including banjo, accordion, pump organ, and concertina. These instruments are arranged with a calculated sense of abandon that imbues the music with a jug band-like quality that finds the artists in strict defiance of the contemporary pop idiom, despite these tracks fitting, however loosely, the description of what might once have been termed “popular music.”

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