Ólöf Arnalds – St Pancras Old Church, London – 25 November 2011

Written for The Music Fix.

There’s a tendency to assume that Icelandic musicians are something of an oddity, best dealt with separately from those born in the traditional homes of Western pop. Ólöf Arnalds might be a relatively recent addition to the island’s vibrant and varied music scene, but her output warrants such an attitude – her quirky-voiced acoustic folk is firmly rooted in the land of elves, volcanoes and whale watching.

The candlelit chapel provided an appropriately atmospheric setting for her last solo gig for a long time. Despite her lack of faith, there was room early on in the improvised setlist for a simple religious song, learnt at a tiny Icelandic church’s annual mass service. There was a similarly hymnic quality to ‘Innundir Skinni’ and ‘Crazy Car’, both pleasantly augmented by gentle audience harmonies. In the intimate setting, Arnalds’ unamplified voice – only her homely nylon-stringed guitar and charango received a boost – could either be sweet and personal or childlike and piercing. Like one-time collaborator Björk, her voice betrays an impressive control, despite its seemingly untamed tones.

At a few irksome moments, she replayed songs after forgetting lyrics, but otherwise her performance’s eccentricities were endearing. A minute-long introduction to an instrumental about a village in north-eastern Iceland was unexpectedly longer than the fragmentary piece itself, while her wayward banter and mad excitement at the church bells sounding mid-song fell on just the right side of the boundary between “adorable” and “disconcerting”.

Joking that the crowd deserved refunds for listening to “open practices” of some new songs, requests included the lilting ‘Vittu af Mér’, before Arnalds closed with an a cappella rendering of the traditional Irish folk song ‘The Trees They Grow So High’. Bringing focus round to her brilliantly communicative face, it reminded that Arnalds is more than just a pretty voice.

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