Susanna and the Magical Orchestra at Schubas / by Doyle Armbrust

Listening to Susanna Wallumrød and Morten Qvenild reinterpret Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, KISS and Joy Division is the equivalent of donning a pair of red-lensed sunglasses: The picture remains undistorted, but the panorama takes on an unfamiliar luminosity. The duo’s third full-length, 3, was released in 2009, but Susanna and the Magical Orchestra is only now embarking on its inaugural North American tour. The Norwegians already enjoy traction with indie audiences through unimpeachable reworkings of Leonard Cohen’s devastator “Hallelujah,” as well as Wallumrød’s solo work, most notably in her spectral duets with singer-songwriter Will Oldham.

Following covers album Melody Mountain, 3 finds the duo retraining its focus on original material, with the exception of Roy Harper’s “Another Day” and Rush’s “Subdivisions,” which perhaps not surprisingly prove to be the two sterling cuts of the album. As an orchestra of one, Qvenild’s Tangerine Dream–ish synth work on the Rush cover lays a sparkling embroidery beneath Susanna’s earnest and introspective alto. Elements of the keyboardist’s proggy, atmospheric jazz project In the Country are found here, at times dragging the singing perilously close to Sarah McLachlan territory, but ultimately the match is an auspicious one, presenting Susanna’s voice within a texture quite removed from her solo work.

With songs swelling and receding between the darkly intimate and the austerely frigid, Schubas is the ideal venue for the duo’s Chicago debut, even if the season isn’t exactly right.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on June 16th, 2010