The labels “snow folk” and “inuit indie” applied to Nive Nielsen’s music aren’t necessarily far off. True, she is of indigenous Greenlandic descent, and yes her whirling brand of folk infused with indie pop sensibilities does touch on the landscape of her country. But, to pin down the experimental playfulness that characterise her second album, Feet First, to those parameters is to miss out on what makes her such a beguiling proposition that has attracted acclaimed musicians such as Giant Sand magus Howe Gelb, Ralph Carney (Tom Waits’s brass man of choice), and multi-instrumentalist John Parish to play and record with her.
Far from her freezing homeland, Feet First is a product of recent years spent travelling between Europe and America and being involved with films, festivals and different musicians. And this is immediately apparent in Still The Same’s raspy guitar punctuated by drunken brass, and the flickering tremolo guitar that back Nielsen’s whispery vocals on Are You Human, which both draw on the parched borderlands of Arizona that Calexico specialise in. Similarly, the songs she sings in Greenlandic take some American twang and sway, but entwines them with the climatic extremes of Greenland, which range from four hours of daylight on its shortest day to twenty-one hours on its longest. Meditative beats and Morricone-esque guitar drive Nielsen’s waif-like chorals on Tulugaq (the video for which premiered on Folk Radio UK), while Ole seems to echo the vast fjord and craggy mountain that shadow her hometown (Nuuk, Greenland’s capital) as repeated organ drones and economic guitar increase in intensity, almost into the post-rock territory of Mogwai in their more restrained moments.
In a similar vein to Gemma Ray, Walking effortlessly fuses sultry gothic swing to pop choruses and then opens out into sweeping, vaguely Eastern European strings while bone-like percussion clatters underneath as if the parades of Mexico’s Day of the Dead marched through St. Petersburg’s Palace Square. Meanwhile, the appropriately titled Space Song sounds like what might get beamed back if it turns out Elvis Presley really was abducted by aliens: Dreamy pedal steel backed by a crooner’s string ensemble and a loping bass that plods happily across the universe, while Nive sings about (amongst other things) wishing to be as brave as Indiana Jones. It’s pretty easy to see why mercurial oddball Howe Gelb took a shine to Nielsen.
What makes these songs so fascinating though is how seamlessly they veer sideways into unexpected territory. Case in point, Happy starts off a downbeat ukulele strummer tinged by ghostly organ and finishes as a shimmering waltz, while Slip shifts pace from stop-start boogie to half-time reel then full-throttle to a mariachi horns showdown. In lesser hands these twists would seem ham-fisted or become formulaic, but the sinuous flexibility of Nielsen’s backing band, The Deer Children, and its revolving door lineup mean these transformations are always invigorating, and if anything leave you wondering how you ended up where you are at the song’s end.
These songs are shape-shifting beasts that twist as soon as you think you’ve got them pinned down, and it is Nielsen’s bewitching voice and playful spirit at their centre which ensure that Feet First will take you to unexpected places, but in the most enjoyable way possible.
Review by: James MacKinnon
Feet First is released in the UK on 5th Feb 2016 via Glitterhouse Records