Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reykjavík Blues

If more proof were needed that the best things often turn up by accident, during a brief ride on a passenger ferry in Reykjavík the captain switched on a recording of what was, as far as I could tell, someone singing the old Don Gibson country tune "Oh Lonesome Me" in Icelandic. When the boat docked, several tunes later, and I went to ask the what the record was, someone had already beat me to the punch, and the captain gave us both an introduction to Kristján Kristjánsson, better known as KK (pronounced "Cow Cow"), and his frequent collaborator Magnús Eiríksson, who usually goes by Maggi Eiríks or just plain Maggi.

22 Ferðalög, the CD that was playing on the boat, includes Icelandic-language versions of a number of old pop and folk chestnuts, including "Freight Train," "Daisy Bell" ("A Bicycle Built for Two"), and "Baby Face," as well as some songs I recognize but can't put a name on. As far as I can tell (knowing virtually no Icelandic), none of the melodies are new, and the "translated" lyrics may have at best only a rough fidelity to the original. The songs range in style from Tin Pan Alley to country to calypso to Hawaiian, and all are played with deft, swinging arrangements on two guitars. KK, who has the better voice, takes most of the vocals, with Maggi apparently playing the lead lines on guitar. The record was reportedly a big success in Iceland, and has led to two sequels (which I haven't heard), Fleiri ferðalög and Langferðalög. If I'm not mistaken, "ferðalög" means travelogue, and the record is, in fact, perfect traveling music, ingratiating without ever being sappy.

I didn't actually catch up with 22 Ferðalög (via download) until I got home, but before I left I did find a copy of Þrefaldur ("Triple"), a relatively inexpensive set that includes three earlier CDs by the pair, Ómissandi fólk, Kóngur einn dag, and the live album Lifað og leikið, dating from 1996 to 2000, and displaying a harder, more rock-oriented side to their work. Except for some American blues covers on the third CD (sung in English), most of the songs here seem to be originals, and good ones at that. Again, it's hard to judge songs without knowing the language, but the tunes and musicianship are first-rate. The live CD is more of a mixed bag stylistically than the first two discs, but it includes two of KK's best songs, the lovely road song "Vegbúi" and the haunting "Grand Hótel," as well as an eight-minute version of "Everyday I Have the Blues" that lets Maggi air it out on guitar.

KK (on the right in both photos) was born in Minnesota in 1956, though his parents were evidently Icelanders and the family moved back to Iceland when he was ten. He later studied music in Sweden. I haven't found much information on Magnus Eiríkson. It appears to be very difficult to obtain the pair's CDs in the US (and I don't know whether they ever tour here), but their music can be downloaded as mp3s from [No longer active]. There are a few YouTube videos of KK out there, with or without Magnús, but the sound quality on most isn't great, though this version of a song called "Dalakofinn" seems to have been taken directly from a CD.

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