Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ingeborg von Agassiz's O Giver of Dreams Delivers as Promised

It began with a remark I heard from someone close to the music scene in 2016. I'd asked who locally was doing the most interesting work today. "Without question, what Ingeborg von Agassiz is doing," Marc Gartman replied. I made a mental note to catch her act sometime, but it wasn't in the cards as I am not the night owl I once was.

Eventually I learned that I already knew Ms. Agassiz as the artist Emma Rustan, whose work I'd previously written about on a couple of occasions here. (e.g. Art Crawl review in 2013)

This spring saw the release of Ingeborg von Agassiz's first CD, evocatively titled O Giver of Dreams, accompanied by a rave review from Tony Bennett in the Duluth News Tribune. The review was titled Album review: Ingeborg von Agassiz astounds on debut LP, and it opens with: Let's just skip to the headline: Ingeborg von Agassiz' debut album is one of the best locally-made albums in the history of locally-made albums. It's true. No hyperbole.

That kind of high praise gets your attention. Sure enough, this past weekend I caught part of her performance at the Bayfront Park Art Fair and acquired a CD. It's every bit as good as Bennett boasts.**

I approach this review by offering up a comparison. As is well-known (by regular readers here) I am an advocate for the music of Bob Dylan. For decades I've approached each of his new albums in a similar manner. I play the album through. A few songs immediately connect during that first listen, not necessarily every song right off.  But there are always a few tunes that grab you and, for me anyways, this is often the very first cut. From Time Out of Mind to Tempest it's happened every time. Then the second listen and a third, and after a while each song begins to unfold. An astute listener begins to see how much thought went into the production, the layering the the sound, the caliber of the band and, with Dylan (always) the richness of the lyrics, their beauty or complexity, variety or density.

Returning to O Giver of Dreams, Ingeborg von Agassiz has produced something every bit as complex and luscious, from both the production side and the literary quality of the songs themselves.

Dylan, for those who appreciate his work, is a master of evocation when singing. People who dislike his voice fail to appreciate what he achieves in creating emotion through intonation, from haunting to longing, aching to aspiring. Ingeborg von Agassiz is likewise evocative, forming words with deliberate aims on each of her songs.

Von Agassiz at Super Big Block Party 2017. (Photo credit: Andy Hardman)
Few will compare von Agassiz to Dylan, I am sure, because she has such a beautiful voice. What she achieves with that voice is far more than just a mercurial fluidity of sound. Having listened to O Giver about ten times this week I hear various echoes. Loreena McKennett comes to mind at one point. ABBA kept coming to mind and I couldn't figure out why, but it's because of the manner in which she sings in unison with herself on some songs. And, this will surprise you, Sgt. Pepper came immediately to mind as the album opened. The similarity is in the feeling of setting up a place where people are gathered, and there is anticipation. In Sgt. Pepper it is an auditorium audience; in O Giver of Dreams it sound like a restaurant or dinner theater with the clinking of glasses, forks, knives, plates, and the drone of people not yet paying attention to what is about to happen.

Then there are the songs themselves. That is, as a lyricist she has a remarkable maturity. Examples abound.

Lonesome Way
This first song begins, "Come with me. Come with me." Seductive without being sensual, inviting the listener to enter this story, her story. (Keep in mind that it is a song and that historically the narrator of a song may not necessarily be the real person's story. This could be a fictional story, sung first person, the way folk singers sing "Barbara Allen.")

As the opening of the album, it can also be taken as an invitation... "take this journey with me." But it could be simply the invitation of this song. "Come along with me in my lonesome misery..." What an unexpected turn. Already, we have been diverted into a different path from the one expected. Lonesome misery. How? Why? That is what this first song is about, the how it happened and why.

I will make another Dylan comparison here as well. Many of the lyrics have been written with a seemingly measured ambiguity that invites further analysis and reflection. This occurs here and in a few of the other songs.

It should be noted that von Agassiz has produced all the music, all the vocals, the percussion and everything else herself. When she performs she uses looping and layering, much the way Gaelynn Lea or Israel Malachi have been doing over the years. The arrangements are terrifically complex and sophisticated.

At the Earth Rider Grand Opening.
Oh What A Morning
Another comparison is in order here. Some may suggest exaggeration but I think not. Von Agassiz has a knack for creating catchy tunes that stick with you, like the Beatles whose early tunes climbed the pop charts like monkeys. The other day I woke with the opening of this song going through my head. "Oh what a morning, oh what a morning, oh what a morning, oh what a morning." The song opens with this phrase repeated by a unison chorus, four times. Then Inge opens the song, with accompaniment, "Oh what a morning..."

This song is like the first in that it, too, is in invitation. It's from a child's point of view. What a beautiful morning. Won't you come out and play with me? We can go ride our bikes. We'll climb trees. And I will show you my new dance, if you let me.

Oh, the Hillside 
This tune is a change of pace, sung as if a lament, a nostalgia piece. The central theme is the hills of Duluth. The verses outline the Duluth experience, from the hillside to the bells of Old Central, thnd e freighters, the lift bridge going up and down, the howling wind, the lighthouse on the pier, the train chugging by, Fitgers, and the mystery of the Great Lake. The song's straightforward lyrics are beguiliing when juxtaposed with its haunting tune.

Bulletproof Vest
"Going south, south for the winter
That's what I'm gonna do next year."
In an album with so many special tracks it's difficult to pick any one to be your favorite, but this one would certainly be a candidate. It's a solid song with intriguing lyrics sung in a crafted manner that draws you in. An old man, an obituary, a funeral... and a chorus that reinforces a contradiction.

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Maybe the magic of Ingeborg von Agassiz's songs has something to do with the collision of innocence with innocence lost. You certainly hear this in Sun Beats Down and Rebel Robin. The pointed "O Giver of Dreams" is a serious song as well, followed by Runtchkin Love's opening line, "I plucked my eyebrows to a shape of pity and despair."

The lyrics throughout belie their depth, much like Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower."

The CD rounds out with "What's Wrong With Me" and "Will You Go?"  and when you reach the end you will want to listen again.

Verdict: O Giver of Dreams is an exceptional achievement.

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**Tony Bennett review in the DNT

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