Album Reviews

Complete Mountain Almanac – Complete Mountain Almanac

(Bella Union) UK release date: 27 January 2023

Rebekka Karijord and Jessica Dessner’s rather special song cycle harks back to Schubert in its pictorial settings but also brings in healthy elements of modern classical music and folk 

Complete Mountain Almanac - Complete Mountain Almanac The seasons have long held a fascination for composers and artists, stretching back thousands of years. Classical music can boast an impressive canon with examples from Vivaldi, Piazzolla and to a lesser extent Tchaikovsky, captivating classical listeners – while folk and pop music frequently delight in the changing of the meteorological guard.

The inspiration behind the work of Complete Mountain Almanac, however, has more serious implications. The project has its roots in the partnership of Rebekka Karijord and Jessica Dessner, who have been close friends for 15 years since they met in Brooklyn. Their self-titled album is essentially a response to climate change, with each of the 12 ‘movements’ taking their lead from a month in the year. During the recording process Dessner was diagnosed with breast cancer, and encouraged by her partner she used the project as an outlet for the contrasting feelings such a life-changing event brings.

Because of these elements the album has a rarefied beauty, a gentle but marked intensity, that makes itself immediately known to the listener. A primary reason for this Karijord’s voice. Recorded in one take, she sings with a natural beauty, responding with poise and heartfelt emotion to the texts, while projecting effortlessly above the production, which stretches from a single guitar line to the full might of the Malmo Symphony Orchestra.

The guitars too, play a notable part – for they are literally brothers in arms, played by Dessner’s siblings Bryce and Aaron. We see quite a different side of The National band members, though, tapping into Bryce’s experience and sensibility as an orchestral composer, but also the ability of both to accompany a singer with understated yet probing lines. Throughout the album their thoughtful melodies duck and weave beneath Karijord’s own thoughts, creating minimal cells of their own – and again all are done live, bringing an extra frisson to the process. Only the string arrangements came later, written by Bryce and layered in overdubs. Again the key word is restraint, for although more people are involved they add to the wonder of the pictures created.

As the record progresses the ebb and flow of the seasons is fully revealed, like a nature documentary in audio form. Personal feelings run deep, too, and as the green of March rises up the song ends with a murmured aside, “I love you”. May is especially personal, an exploration of the body taking on extra poignancy in the wake of Jessica’s diagnosis. August looks up with a carefree air, basking in the dappled sunlight from the ambling guitars, its upward melodic line of “mercury” balanced by the warmth of mellow brass in the distance. December has the crisp clarity of winter sunshine, wrapping up the year with Bach-like counterpoint from the Dessner guitars.

This is a rather special song cycle, harking all the way back to Schubert in its pictorial settings but also bringing in healthy elements of modern classical music and folk. Karijord sings beautifully, too. The friends have created something memorable here – not just to bring attention to serious causes, but to captivate and delight all those who stop to listen.

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Complete Mountain Almanac – Complete Mountain Almanac