Jenny Hval @ Cafe 939 9.25.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published October 7th 2013
Norway’s own Jenny Hval released her second album under her own name, the fascinating and slightly sinister Innocence is Kinky, back in April of this year. The fall sees her embarking on her first-ever tour of the United States, the first stop of which happened right here in Boston at Berklee’s Café 939.
Hval came across as less of an enigmatic presence on stage than her recorded output might suggest, but her performance was no less compelling because of it. Putting a face to the often eerie voice that spells out Hval’s socially and sexually conscious lyrics on record seemed to add a certain gravitas to the words, though Hval herself might disagree (she remarked partway through the show, which was being broadcast to radio, that she liked the idea of people hearing without seeing). Still, there’s simply no denying that the frankness of a song like Innocence is Kinky’s title track has a different impact when its singer is standing a mere few feet away.
Café 939’s tiny Red Room performance space is one of the coziest spots to catch a show in the city, and the intimacy served Hval’s set nicely. Her approach to vocals blended spoken word passages with impassioned flares employed at the right moments; a dynamic of whispering in the audience’s ear one moment and shouting in its face the next that proved exceptionally effective in such a small space. The confrontational aspect of Hval’s work shined through in moments that shook free from delicate, entrancing grooves with a sharply delivered lyric or a stab of distorted guitar. Tension built and broke without warning, giving the performance a vital sense of propulsion.
Hval’s songs make excellent use of empty sonic space and periods of almost total silence in this game of dynamics, and she replicated that aspect of her sound well with the help of a two-man band. Skeletal electronic loops lay at the heart of many of these tracks, enhanced by the punch of live drums or guitars when necessary, or left to carry the mood on their own when it best fit the circumstances. The occasional bit of first-night-of-tour trepidation was evident in the performance, but in the end the songs came together quite nicely. Hval is artist to watch if you have an adventurous ear, and a successful start to her first U.S. tour hopefully indicates that she’ll be back for more.