Ólöf Arnalds at Schubas / by Doyle Armbrust

Ólöf Arnalds’s sophomore album, Innundir skinni, generated fan anxiety with the news that it would incorporate more elaborate, nonacoustic orchestrations. For Arnalds, the departure was a risk, given the acclaim lavished on her spare folk debut, Við Og Við.

But from the new effort’s opening track, “Vinur Minn,” it’s clear concerns were unfounded, as the Icelander eases us into the transition with her a cappella voice ushering in a simple guitar accompaniment. That eventually blossoms into an exuberant chorus of voices, horns, electric guitar, strings, drum kit and what sounds to be the cooing of a baby, hiding somewhere in the mix. The birth of her first child seems to have shelved much of the melancholy pervading Við Og Við. On this album’s strongest cut, “Surrender,” Arnalds serenades the infant in her exceedingly pure-toned voice with earnest lyrics such as “I carry you?/?I nurture you?/?Give birth to you.” Threaded throughout the track is the transfixing charango, a South American lute historically made with a repurposed armadillo shell, an instrument the 30-year-old has unwittingly popularized in her native land. Björk sings a soaring counter-melody, one that adds further sonic dimension to the lullaby and feels less like a cameo and more like an unavoidable, organic rejoinder.

Known for risking on-the-spot deviations and reworkings of her songs onstage, Arnalds may have found an ideal venue in the wood-paneled nook of Schubas. It’ll be interesting to see how the complexities of her newfound assortment of instruments affects Arnalds’s lineup, but in truth, the Icelandic troubadour’s voice alone is worth the price of admission.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on October 13th, 2010