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CD Review: Väsen - 'Mindset'

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CD Review: Väsen - 'Mindset'
© NorthSide Records
Okay, Väsen fans, I'm going to shock you: the band's 2013 release, Mindset, is the best CD they've ever released. Wait, you're not shocked? Yeah, okay, me either. The Swedish folk powerhouse is coming up on 25 years of recordings, and each CD they've made has been as good as or better than the last, and they're still young. I'm not speaking in superlatives when I say that Väsen is one of the best bands in the world, and once again, they've delivered.

No, it really isn't an exaggeration to say that these guys play music better, and play music better together, than almost anyone else out there. Their sound straddles a nearly impossible line between playful and refined, and despite being just three men strong (though they do have more than 30 strings between them), their sound is full and powerful.

For the uninitiated, Väsen is not the easiest sell on paper. First of all, they're all-acoustic and all-instrumental, and though their sound is tradition-based, their compositions are largely original (entirely, in fact, on this album). Mikael Marin plays the five-string viola (a viola that also has the high "E" string of a fiddle), Roger Tallroth plays the 12-string guitar (and occasionally a four-string tenor guitar), and Olov Johansson plays various types of nyckelharpa, a fiddle-like instrument which is both bowed and keyed and which appears on the 50-kronor banknote of Sweden. Their sound resembles certain types of Celtic music (and is indeed related, via cross-cultural mixing which took place in the time of the Vikings), but the sound is certainly distinct, and the Nordic song styles are distinct as well, and Väsen puts them through a lens of sleek modernity.

So let's talk about Mindset a little bit. It is, like I said earlier, the best thing they've ever done, which, as a long-time fan, I found entirely unsurprising (though I was pleased, of course). The fourteen songs comprise polskas, waltzes, marsches, and others, and is well-sequenced and beautifully produced.

Highlights include the opening number, "Byxen, Fisen & Blåsen," a song written by all three band members, and appropriately named after three characters from an old Swedish nursery rhyme, which sets the tone for the record: dynamic, danceable, and childlike yet profound. "Polska for Tom Morrow," written by Olov Johansson for Tom Morrow, the fiddler in Irish band Dervish, has a minor, dark melody but a cheerful Celtic pulse which play well against each other.

The meandering fiddle-driven melody of the Marin-penned "Träbens-Jonke," which the liner notes explain is "a tribute to all of the vagabonds that wandered around in Sweden a hundred years ago," is another high point -- it's perhaps more of a performance-ready piece than a dancer-friendly one, but it has a great almost medieval feel to it. Also, keep your ears open for "Pilvi & Eskos Brudvals," a song composed by Tallroth as the wedding waltz for friends of the band. It's a grand waltz, starkly romantic and completely charming, and it makes a great finale for the record as a whole.

Really, though, it's one of those records that's best enjoyed as a whole, in sequence, because it rises and falls and crescendoes and breaks at really lovely, natural points, and it's worth taking some space to listen to, as well (try your living room rather than the car, for example), because for being a simple trio, these guys have a lot going on at once.

Mindset was released in January 2013. Total playing time is 49:06.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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