By Emily Votaw
Leif Vollebekk is an idealist. You can feel it in his music. The way each chorus-less, unwaveringly lonely tune wraps itself into itself until it snaps, wanders or rolls away from the listener seems painstakingly calculated. “North Americana,” Vollebekk’s sophomore effort, is exactly what a lovesick child of the ’90s would invent after years of listening to an odd Holy Trinity of Leonard Cohen, Ryan Adams and Gillian Welch.
“North Americana” is a sparse album expertly recorded on tape, Vollebekk forgoing a recording method that could precisely sniffle out the human mistakes that warm and flesh out his delicately skeletal songs. Each song creates a landscape, each desperate and desolate in its intricacies and infused with lyrics that reflect the modern internal dialogue of a twentysomething in 2014. It’s important to note that “North Americana” is only hitting American shelves in Jan. 28, and has been available for Canadian fans for a while; but that doesn’t change how breathtakingly modern Vollebekk’s lyrics are.
“Pallbearer Blues” is a quiet blues tune, musing over the passing of a perpetually busier, more ambitious friend and the pain of unintentional last goodbyes. Although those themes are timeless, Vollebekk’s delivery is very, very post-2010. “Last time I saw you/ You saw my name in the paper/ Shook my hand/ Wished me luck/ And said you had to go/ But now it’s my turn to see your name in the paper/ Said you were leaving but how was I supposed to know?” Something about Vollebekk’s slightly irreverent way of referring to death, making a sort of pitiful joke out of the circumstances of the loss of someone you don’t quite know, is as quietly hilarious as it is poignant.
Vollebekk carries that same inexplicably modern or postmodern or whatever it is mentality throughout the album, and it’s refreshing. However, certain aspects of the album are trying. “Takk Somuleidis” is the most immediately appealing track, but it also feels like a somewhat contrived attempt at alt-country. Vollebekk employs just about every instrument that the listener has heard by that point, and it should feel good, and it does feel good with repetitive listens, kind of, but something just isn’t quite right.
This is a sort of residual reaction that the listener is left with at certain points throughout the album, even after the accomplished opener, “Southern United States.” Even though everyone enjoys a good reference to Lou Reed’s unrepentantly dark third solo album “Berlin,” there is something about Vollebekk’s more-than-apparent fascination with American music that is detrimental to his music. Vollebekk is obviously going for something that should’ve been released 40, 50, 60 years ago. If Vollebekk’s work was as groundbreaking and unique as Joni Mitchell’s, Hank Williams’ or even Ryan Adams’, “North Americana” would be a truly impressive sophomore effort.
By the time “From the Fourth,” the final song on the album, dissipates into silence, you don’t really feel like you know Vollebekk. And the problem is, you really wish you did.