Graded on a Curve: Daniel Norgren,
Wooh Dang

Daniel Norgren’s home is in Southwest Sweden, but his music resonates like he grew up and gained experience in the Southeast region of the United States. It’s very much a rootsy, bluesy, Americana-tinged thing, and yet partly due to a recording aesthetic that’s deliberately if not overly self-consciously lo-fi, it’s difficult to compare his body of work to anybody else’s. He’s cut a slew of records since the mid-’00s, but his latest, Wooh Dang, is the first to really receive an international push. Through maturing songwriting and appealing instrumental atmospheres, it’s certain to widen his fanbase. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital via the artist’s own Superpuma Records.

As we’re nearly two decades into the 21st century, it’s perhaps silly to put too much stock in musical regionalism, but still; the depth of Daniel Norgren’s Southern US-impacted singer-songwriter roots action is rather striking. It’s also smart to not overstate his originality, with 2008’s sophomore effort Outskirt, which seems to be the earliest Norgren release that’s easily accessible for listening, offering sustained portions reminiscent of post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits crossed with early M. Ward and enhanced with strains of Calexico (taking us further out west) and Dylan in a gospel-blues frame of mind.

But over time, the individual moments on Norgren’s albums have gotten harder to peg to precedent as the home-recorded ambience has intensified. Another way of saying it; his songs have simply gotten better as he’s become adept with scaled-down studio atmospheres that are conducive to varying levels of audio experimentation (it’s this aspect that lends him solid ties to lo-fi as an enduring movement).

Due to the prominent use of hovering organ, Alabursy, the first of two LPs Norgren released in 2015, reminded me a bit of later Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized blended with a singer-songwriting approach maybe a tad evocative of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It’s follow-up The Green Stone lessened the former while maintaining the latter to no less-satisfying result.

Wooh Dang is his first album since that prolific year, and out of everything by Norgren that I’ve heard, this one just might be his best. It opens with “Blue Sky Moon,” which for most of its duration is a sliver of environmental drone complete with birdsong, though it culminates with a little guitar strum and some wordless vocals.

The piano-centered “The Flow” follows, its tempo gradual and its length ample so that the introduction of some stinging guitar texture and later, what sounds like melodica, is effectively rendered. The track’s unrushed drift is in sharp contrast to the bluesy groove, complete with horns and a smattering of keys, of “Dandelion Time,” a cut which highlights the advancements Norgren has made in conjuring explicitly rootsy material since Outskirt.

As detailed above, it was once fairly easy to pinpoint (or at least speculate over) influence, but “Dandelion Time” just comes off like a party jam shaped by a probable love of Mississippi Fred McDowell (and maybe just a hint of Beefheart) and captured on a late Saturday afternoon in a parking lot by Chris Strachwitz.

It’s also worth mentioning that Norgren no longer seems so invested in conjuring ambience, i.e. he’s not trying so hard. He’s just more into doing his thing. But with “The Power,” Norgren shifts back into singer-songwriter mode for a piano-fueled excursion that’s emotionally vibrant and musically rich while again resisting any quick associations.

However, as Wooh Dang unwinds, some comparisons can be made. “Rolling Rolling Rolling” reminded me a little of pre-sail boaters’ music Dan Bahar delving into ’70s gospel-infused soft rock, and with nods to Delaney and Bonnie and perhaps even Lou Reed. That’s cool. And with “Let Love Run the Game” (a pretty clear reference to Jackson C. Frank) Norgren dives into a zone redolent of The Band in a swamp funk lather. That’s even cooler.

But between those cuts, “So Glad,” which features just vocals, piano, and bowed strings, is another beauty move that’s tenderness gets matched by “The Day That’s Just Begun,” that cut arriving after “Let Love Run the Game.” This establishes an alternating motif across Wooh Dang of rocking and introspection. However, “When I Hold You in My Arms” diverts from the pattern, dishing an appealing Tex Mex atmosphere that nicely emphasizes Norgren’s increased range while standing solidly on its own as a late-album nugget.

With the short instrumental title track the album concludes, extending a recent tendency in Norgren’s discography toward shorter LPs. 2013’s Buck was the last one to really stretch out; it required four sides of vinyl, but Alabursy, The Green Stone, and now Norgren’s latest seem to prefer leaving the listener wanting more. In the end this is really just classic LP length, so Wooh Dang satisfies as it instills a desire for further listening. As Norgren makes headway in the international scene, it’s a smart tactic, illuminating his sharpened acumen with a song, his discerning taste, and his artistic maturity, overall.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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