Only a few days after writing about excellent Restaurant Jonas in Stockholm, I´m reached by the news that they are shutting down. Apparently not profitable enough to keep going, there are even rumours of it losing money ever since its opening. It´s a shame since this place really had what it took to be very good. Just happy to having been able to try it out at least once.
Almost everybody that´s ever seriously tried to play the acoustic guitar will recognize the name Bert Jansch, the Glasgow-born prodigy that Neil Young claimes has done for the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric. When dying in 2011 at the age of 67 from lung cancer, Jansch had a career of more than 20 albums to his name recorded between 1965 and 2006. As one of the founding members of British folk act Pentangle, he also contributed to their 12 albums. Both prolific and extremely creative, this is a guitarist not only held in esteem by folk music fans but also by rock guitarists like Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler. His hugely influentual virtuosity defies conventional genre classifications clearly making him one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
The six year career of Pentangle ended amongst disputes with recording company Transatlantic regarding royalties, as well as the strains of touring and working together as a band. Jansch and his wife Heather Sewell bought a farm in Wales, as a way of temporary withdrawing from the music industry. However, the life of a farmer couldn´t overpower the lure of performing and creating music, leading him back to his origins as a solo artist.
L.A. Turnaround was recorded in Paris and Los Angeles between 1973 and 1974, quickly becoming one of his most regarded albums. Opener “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning” sounds exactly like its title, with singing and melodic acoustic work by Jansch augmented by slide guitar from Red Rhodes. “Chambertin” showcases Jansch´s fantastic guitar playing in its equilibrist glory, still without technique ever getting in the way of feeling. “One for Jo” taps into his folk music past while still developing pop sensibilities, carried on by the beautiful “Travelling Man”. Traditional sounding “Open up the Watergate (Let the sunshine in)” carries on a mix of blues and folk that somehow defines this recor
Side two of the original vinyl edition starts with the melodically fresh “Of love and lullaby” followed by a version of the Jansch signature song “Needle of Death”, about a friend succumbing to heroin addiction. Short instrumental “Lady Nothing” written by John Renbourn is another showpiece of Jansch´s guitar skills, just as breezy “There comes a time” is of his powers as a songwriter. Traditional “Cluck old hen” goes into Appalachian territory, with fiddle, mandolin and excellent bass by Klaus Voorman. Ending the record is “The Blacksmith”, starting as a driving folk tune and morphing into a closing jazzy jam. Great stuff.
Previously pretty hard to get, this record has been reissued both on vinyl and CD together with his other two Charisma albums, “Santa Barbara honeymoon” and “A rare conundrum”. Even though Jansch has often been seen as a folk musician, easily understood in the light of his involvement with Pentangle, I would argue that there´s a lot more going on here. There are elements of jazz, rock and blues in his music, and his most vocal proponents during later years comes from the pop and rock music scene. Don´t miss this great guitarist and artist, with a huge amount of great music in his catalogue for you to discover.
One of the true joys of life is sitting in a good restaurant enjoying the work of a master chef. The renaissance of Nordic cuisine has made waves all over the world, and the use of seasonal local ingredients of remarkable quality has paved the way for the development of something both extraordinary and unique. Never before has Sweden offered so many opportunities for outstanding gourmet dining as now. I´ve already written about places like Esperanto, Frantzén, Mathias Dahlgren and Oaxen, and several others like the sensational Gastrologik exists. Now Stockholm has been blessed with yet another top-level establishment, with the opening of Restaurant Jonas .
Owner and Head Chef Jonas Lundgren has earned his dues at Swedish classics Gondolen and Sturecompagniet, as well as international Michelin starred restaurants Le Canard, The Square, Pierre Gagnier and The French Laundry amongst others. In between this he´s also accomplished a 2nd place in the 2009 Bocuse d´Or World. Quite impressive for a 35+ chef. Wanting to start a place of his own, he´s now returned to Stockholm to establish Restaurant Jonas, located in the Kungsholmen district. Apart from the gourmet restaurant there´s also a food and wine bar, offering a smaller and more affordable menu.
My visit was of course to the restaurant itself, housed in a smartly designed and spacious ground floor dining room. Growing herbs used in the kitchen covers one of the walls almost from floor to ceiling, making up a vertical aromatic meadow shining green in the light from the large windows.
There´s a choice between tasing menus of 4 or 6 courses, or the possibility to go all in for a whole evening´s journey through everything that the restaurant offers. For drinks you´re either offered the sommelier´s wine pairings or choose yourself from the extensive wine list. Having an early morning the next day, our group decided for the 6 course menu, which still took some 4 hours to enjoy.
To begin with a set of carefully chosen amuses were served, of which one of the most memorable was a small lollipop of capers surrounded by burnt meringue, the saltiness and acidity of the capers marrying with the sweetness and burnt caramel of the meringue into an exquisite whole.
The menu itself has been constructed around a set of headings, the first one being “Sea” and building a dish of oysters in different preparations together with clams and dill. For “Season” you get variations of wonderfully fresh white asparagus from the island of Gotland, along with creamy egg yolks and whey. This was followed by “Taste” consisting of langoustine, peas and the ever present ramsons. “Josper 500” announces the meat dish, telling you that the piece of locally produced pork has been grilled in their signature and trendy Spanish Josper grill, allowing cooking at high temperature while still keeping all the moisture in.
The menu finishes with a variation on cheese, served grated in a heap over syrup and hazelnuts in an extremely tasty combination, followed by a dessert of rice ice cream with burnt butter and “getmese” (a traditional fare of the Swedish province of Jämtland made by boiling the whey left over from producing goat cheese). Delicious and so very much in vogue with current trend of not particularily sweet desserts, something I´ve become quite fond of.
The friendly and knowledgeable staff creates a very nice and stress-free ambiance and service is impeccable throughout the meal, making the combined experience impressively enjoyable. Undoubtedly this place will be a contender in the top echelons of Stockholm luxury dining. A cause for concern though could be the fact that only four tables were occupied during our evening there. On the other hand, this means that almost everybody eating out in Stockholm on this particular night was in the wrong place.
The infatuation I´ve felt for the new First Aid Kit album during the past few weeks provided the impulse to go back and listen to what the Söderberg´s father was up to during his first career in the early eighties. Formed in my present hometown of Örebro, Sweden in 1979, Lolita Pop can still be considered one of the truly legendary Swedish rock bands. After a period of playing covers of songs by Iggy Pop, Television, Roxy Music and Lou Reed (with rewritten lyrics in Swedish) they started producing original material, releasing “Falska bilder” in 1982. Although influences from Television were easily spotted on the debut, follow-up “Fem söker en skatt” released in 1983 showed a maturing band with a sound very much their own. Poetic lyrics in Swedish along with a Nordic take on New York guitar rock made for a classic album that´s in my view one of their best.
The same year saw the release of next album “Irrfärder”, continuing the evolution of songwriting into more melodic territory while still keeping their edge. At about this time ideas of an international career appeared, and the album I´m writing about today was released. The songs on “Lolita Pop” were mostly taken from “Irrfärder” with a few additions from “Fem söker en skatt”, but reworked with lyrics in English. Another album with Swedish lyrics (“Att ha fritidsbåt”) was released in 1985, followed by an English version two years later strangely enough also called just “Lolita Pop”. The last two albums “Love Poison” and “Blumenkraft” saw the group changing into writing entirely in English, in a last bid for the international fame that had so far eluded them. While probably being the most commercially successful period of the band, a string of hits didn´t stop founding members from quitting leading to the group disbanding in 1992.
So, let´s get back to the original “Lolita Pop” album released with pretty naive hopes of garnering attention outside of Sweden. There´s no way around the fact that this is a record consisting of a collection of great songs in inferior versions. Even though I suspect that the original backgrounds were used together with new vocals and some slight embellishment there´s still something missing here. Although the overall sound could be seen as representative for 80´s indie-type rock, the original and inventive guitar work by Sten Booberg and Benkt Svensson (now Söderberg) still makes it stand out. Along with the superb vocals of leading lady Karin Wistrand it all boiled down to one of the best acts of contemporary Swedish rock music, more so live than on record.
While absolutely necessary to reach a non-Swedish audience, the translations of the lyrics still suffered with much of the magic of the originals evaporating. One of the best examples are the first lines of “Briny Diamonds” (“Salta Diamanter”) which in Swedish are pure poetry and in English ends up very much less so. That said, I still like this album very much as it allowed itself to aspire to something bigger than the provincial success the band had achieved so far. In many ways a brilliant failure, but even the false notes can´t disguise the quality of these songs or the musicianship of this band.
Although this is the third album from Brooklyn band Parquet Courts, it´s the first one I´ve heard even though the group has been on the outskirts of my radar for some time. The massive hype that´s been heaped upon everything originating in this NYC borough during recent years could make you suspect that coming from Brooklyn might soon be more of a liability than an asset, as the compass needle of trendiness swings in some other direction. Not that these guys gives the least impression of ever wanting to be trendy. Here we have a series of rock tunes that could certainly be said to be served al dente.
“Bodies made of” blends Pixies-like quiet-loud-quiet dynamic with Pavement-guitars, over a lyric coloured by the disgusting physicality of being. With its chugging guitars and slightly atonal singing “Black and White” is a pop song in disguise, barely managing to hide the melody under the noise. The spectre of Malkmus and company looms large over “Dear Ramona” between the short bursts of twangy guitar. “What color is blood” recreates motorik with real instruments instead of electronics, while “Vienna II” offers a few moments of almost Residents-like oddity. The turning your back on the real world in “Always back in town” uses musical monotony to illustrate the plight of the touring musician, repetitive lyrics and all. “She´s rolling” offers wonderfully lo-fi atmospherics, enhanced by Dinosaur Jr guitars and an insistent harmonica pushing the song beyond 6 minutes plus.
Title tune “Sunbathing animal” explodes with new wave nerviness, all frantic guitars and half-shouted lyrics about the downside of the service economy. After this guitar blast referencing the Velvet´s “European Son”, in the name of diversity we get the juxtapositioned melodic one minute of “Up all night”. The repetitive guitar loop of “Instant disassembly” functions as a melodic anchor in what is basically a laidback take on early Velvet Underground. “Ducking and dodging” is trashy swamp-blues refracted through some sort of British pub-rock aesthetic. The first thing that could be called a chorus on this album suddenly appears out of nowhere on “Raw milk”, amidst sleepy singing and understated but great guitarplaying. Beginning with weird and eerie animal like sounds, like something you might hear after dark in some exotic jungle location, “Into the garden” bookends the album while winding down the intensity.
I really like this album which without a doubt shows that it´s possible to make interesting rock music in a guitar band format even in the 21st Century. The etiquette of slacker rock that´s been popular to pin on this band is to my mind very much an ill-reasoned and lazy pigeonholing. This music of course has an undeniable relationship with works of earlier bands like Pavement, Television and in some respects Sonic Youth, but that could be said of a lot of guitar bands and very little music is created in a vacuum. Not the most immediately accessible album you´re liable to hear this year, but those who are willing to give it some time will be richly rewarded.
The duo of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, born in 1990 and 1993 respectively, has despite their youth carved out a very special place for themselves in contemporary Swedish pop music. While being born into the music business as the daughters of guitarist Benkt Svensson (now Söderberg) of legendary Swedish rockers Lolita Pop, they have still built their success themselves on the merits of their work and not by being daddy´s girls.
For many of us, their sensational Youtube video cover of Fleet Foxes´ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” was a first taste of a real new talent. Combining acoustic guitars and accomplished harmonizing into a piece of music actually surpassing the greatness of the original wasn´t in any way a small feat. The simplicity and beauty of it can still bring tears to my eyes.
Debut album “The big black and the blue” carried their country-pop sound forward, while in essence feeling like a songwriting school for the sisters. Follow-up “The lion´s roar” took the crafting of songs further, while continuing to develop their harmony singing . Songs like “Emmylou” – namechecking country dignitaries Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash and June Carter – blends tradition with the chilly Swedish climate into something very sweet and original.
New album “Stay Gold” keeps everything that was unique and special with this band while still going into entirely new territory. A bigger and bolder sound with more mature and accomplished songwriting. It feels more varied than earlier albums and with great arrangements lifting the songs. If that´s not enough we also get the best singing from the sisters so far.
“My silver lining” sets the tone with it´s galloping rhythm, haunting violin and the spotless and confident singing by the sisters. A great pop song and a great opener. Title song “Stay Gold” is one of the album´s stand out tracks, and perfect in every way. Beautiful hovering melody and a slowly building arrangement that ends in blissful harmonies. This is going to be one of the best songs of the year.
“Cedar Lane” might just be the song of the album that most clearly showcases the sisters vocal development, and will keep you breathless. “Waitress song” taps into the general feel of the lyrics of the album, a rootless feeling of travelling, being far from home and maybe wanting to become someone else entirely. “Fleeting one” goes into folk territory and packs just about as much melodic beauty into a song as is possible. Closer “A long time ago” winds down with an emotional piano and string led ballad with some of the most gripping singing you´re likely to hear.
Without a doubt their best album so far, and definitely pointing towards even bigger things to come. Not that I´m entirely sure that´s what they wish for, but First Aid Kit definitely has what it takes to become absolutely huge. It´s rare to find music that sounds simultaneously modern and timeless. There´s an enormous amount of talent on show here. It doesn´t make things worse that these two young sisters seems so damn nice and unspoiled in interviews. Let´s just hope that the big, bad music industry won´t gobble them up.
Vodka might just be the simplest alcoholic beverage of all. A distillate of fermented grain or potatoes, without any exotic processing, barrel aging or such fuss. Even though my native Sweden is considered to be a part of the vodka-belt, here this drink has gone under the name “brännvin” (burnt wine) for hundreds of years, only recently adapting to international terminology in the wake of Absolut fame. Usually the brännvin was infused with different spices, and a large assortment of such beverages still exist, traditionally being consumed at different seasonal feasts.
With a growing interest for exclusive vodkas around the world, it´s hardly surprising that artisanal small batch distilleries has sprung into existence here in northern Europe. This actually being my very first attempt at a vodka tasting, we´re going to try three high-profile vodkas – 2 from Sweden and one from Iceland.
Spirit of Hven Organic Vodka, 80 proof (40%).
Handcrafted by the Molin family, owners of the Spirit of Hven distillery on the island of Hven, between Sweden and Denmark. I´ve mentioned one of their single malt whiskies in an earlier post. The vodka is made from organic wheat using a copper pot still, and spends some time in oak barrels before the final distillation. Bottled by hand without any filtering, colour correction or additives. Of course, the style of the bottle is their own, with a slightly impractical conical shape and a seal of running wax covering the cork.
The drink is clear without any colourations, and after a few hours in the freezer has a slightly oily consistency. The nose has some alcohol esters in it giving an aromatic fruitiness, along with oily, almost solvent-like notes. Probably thanks to the oak barrels, you get an unusually flavourful vodka, with elegant sweetness and an oily mouthfeel. The finish is long and shows some fading black pepper.
Spirit of Hven vodka actually has more similarities to the gin made by the same distillery (more about that later) than with other vodkas I´ve tried. Showing a very distinct character there´s much to like here, although you´re definitely in strange territory. If it should be seen as a tweaked vodka or as a category of it´s own could be debated.
Wannborga Ö Vodka, 80 proof (40,3%).
Manufactured by the Wannborga distillery, that´s also been mentioned here before. Distilled from organic grains, mostly wheat and with a touch of barley, in a pot still. With batches of just 150 liters, yielding about 15 liters of 140 proof spirits, this can truly be called a small batch vodka.
A few words about the bottle. With Absolut Vodka´s success in mind, every producer tries to make the design of their bottles both unique and instantly recognizable, making experiments in shape and size common. Wannborga goes for a slim, elongated bottle too tall to fit in a regular cupboard. Quite nice-looking but not so practical.
The look of the brew is clear and light, no colourings or impurities. The nose has a clear grain character with just a hint of esters. On the palate you get a very smooth, clean and creamy grain taste with some malted barley sweetness and hints of fruit. The finish is medium long with some burn. Quite elegant and manages to balance the neutral grain taste and the hint of sweetness.
Reyka Vodka, 80 proof (40%).
Now for something a bit more exotic. Reyka, started by William Grant & Sons Ltd, began production in 2005 as Iceland´s first privately owned distillery. Like many of the other Nordic countries, Iceland has through history had a problematic view of the production and sale of alcohol. Together with Sweden, Norway and Finland, Iceland has a government monopoly on selling alcoholic beverages mostly sprung from health concerns, perhaps understandable given the long history of widespread binge-drinking in all the Nordic countries.
In an effort to alleviate the ill effects of drinking, the Icelandic parliament put in place a total prohibition of all alcohol in 1915, mitigated in 1935 when the consumption of spirits was again allowed. However, beer with an alcohol content higher than 2,25% was still banned until 1985, making the practice of strengthening low alcohol content beer with distilled spirits common. Nowadays Iceland has an active beer-brewing community with many very special brews, as well as the internationally noted Reyka vodka.
The distillery is located in the small coastal village of Borgarnes, located some 45 kilometers north of the capital Reykjavik. Like most of Iceland the countryside is pretty harsh and dominated by lava rocks. During my almost ten years of residency in Iceland, me and the wife passed this little village numerous times on the way to her parents in the north, regrettably without ever visiting the distillery.
The perhaps most important ingredient in this vodka is the crystal clear and extremely pure glacier water used in its production, filtered through a 4 000 year old lava field. I seem to remember some newspaper story of the chemistry department of Columbia University questioning the reliability of their analytical equipment after trying to find impurities in samples of this water. So clean it seems improbable, unless you´ve actually been living there and has experienced it yourself. Ok, almost every spirit produced has some story about its water, this particular one just happens to be true.
Distillation is made in a Carter head still, of which there exists only a handful worldwide. Used to produce both the Hendrick´s and Bombay Sapphire brands of gin, the idea is to get a less crude alcohol than from an ordinary pot still, while being able to infuse the alcohol vapour with botanicals through a perforated copper basket located between the column and the condenser. For Reyka vodka the basket is filled with lava stones. The production is truly small batch, and uses only clean geothermal energy.
So, what are we getting? A pretty chunky bottle feeling reliably heavy, telling us its contents were distilled in Iceland. Poured in a glass the colour of the drink is clear and sparkling like spring water. The nose has an extremely clean and crisp grain character, absolutely clear of traces of distillate head or tail. It´s character is rock solid, and stays unchanged through repeated sniffing. Upon tasting you get a remarkably pure and dry grain note and a split second of sweetness in the middle, giving way to a lingering, dry finish with a light burn. Very honest and pure, just like a premium vodka should be. Drinking this makes me remember the feeling of just having crawled out of my tent on a chilly morning in the Icelandic highlands. An experience to cherish.