Graded on a Curve:
Mark Olson &
Ingunn Ringvold,
Magdalen Accepts
the Invitation

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Mark Olson is a co-founder of The Jayhawks, which makes him something of a big deal in the Alt-country scene, but lately he’s been focusing his attention on records in collaboration with his wife, the Norwegian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold. Magdalen Accepts the Invitation is their third album together, available June 5 on LP and digital (distributors may even have a CD or two) via Fiesta Red Records. It offers what the couple describe as their “Death Valley isolation chamber folk/pop,” a sound that’s sharply honed as the duo is co-billed for the first time.

The non-Jayhawks portion of Mark Olson’s discography begins in 1997 with a self-titled album by the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, a group that continued into the new century through a series of records that ceased in 2005 with the end of Olson’s marriage to Creekdipper Victoria Williams. Olson’s The Salvation Blues followed in 2007, with a duo album with Jayhawk Gary Louris, Ready for the Flood, emerging the next year.

Olson also returned to the Jayhawks for a stretch that produced Mockingbird Time in 2011, though he persisted as a “solo” artist as well, releasing Many Colored Kite the year before. Those quotes around solo aren’t intended to belittle the level of Olson’s input on these documents of his own creative vision but rather simply denotes that he seems to thrive on familiarity in collaboration.

This is evidenced through his work with Ingunn Ringvold, which obviously includes their prior albums together, Good-bye Lizelle in 2014 and Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun in 2017, but also stretches back to The Salvation Blues, on which she plays acoustic guitar, and includes a songwriting credit on Ready for the Flood and instrumental input (djembe and percussion) on the Olson-Louris tour CD Live @ Eddie’s Attic | Decatur, Georgia | February 13, 2009.

She even plays harmonium on the title track to Mockingbird Time, with this list of her contributions having expanded and intensified over time so that Magdalen Accepts the Invitation reflects Olson’s observation that the pair are answering a calling to be a full-on husband-and-wife songwriting team. A big part of how they pull this off comes right down to the vocal harmonies that are present throughout the album.

While the intermingling of voices helped shape the worthiness of their earlier two records, the sheer vocal beauty is heightened across these ten songs and right away in “Pipestone I Won’t Be Back,” though the track also immediately establishes Ringvold’s prowess as a multi-instrumentalist. For this LP, she is credited with Armenian Qanon, dulcimer, djembe, Mellotron, and Chamberlain; I suspect it’s the Mellotron that she’s playing on “Pipestone I Won’t Be Back.” Its tones deepen that chamber folk/pop weave mentioned in the intro above.

There are also some gently plucked strings, briefly peppering the midsection of the song and returning in its waning moments, that’re more than a little reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes. The peaceful psych-folk-pop of “You’ll Find the Morning” only strengthens this comparison, particularly at just before 1:15, when the drums subtly kick in (this motif recurs, and a little more boldly, later in the track), though it should be said that Magdalen Accepts the Invitation is a smaller-scaled record, one by design that’s vividness underscores the assurance of its maker’s combined vision.

“Excelsior Park,” offers chiming strings and swirling keys anchored with djembe hand drumming as the singing, with Olson in the lead here and Ringvold accenting, fills out the tune. Next, the Brit-folky faux strings in “Christina Hi” usher in grand sweep, as Mellotrons and Chamberlains often do, while simultaneously reinforcing the album’s relatively modest construction (Magdalen was recorded across a summer at Thermometer Shelter Studios near Death Valley National Park).

“April in Your Cloud Garden” redirects into almost country-rock territory courtesy of a little guitar strum and twang, not a surprise given Olson’s overall background, but when considered in the context of his albums with Ringvold, the style does stick out a tad. But that aura of string hover is still present, and that’s as cool as ice. The cut segues into the folky sweetness of “31 Patience Games,” though the strumming remains appealingly sturdy.

With “Children of the Street Car,” they blend more of that third album Arthur Lee-like pizzicato lushness with an elevated harmoniousness of voice that supports the comparisons to the Mamas and the Papas and Peter, Paul, and Mary. What’s especially attractive is the lack of any preciousness in execution. This gets reinforced in “Silent Mary,” where baroque underpinning deepens the prettiness of tune that’s delivered with hearty verve.

Coming late, “Elmira’s Fountain” taps into that Brit folk sensibility once more, but in an unexpected twist, the first few seconds of the final track “Black Locust” reminded me just a smidge of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” That’s nice! And hey, the same can be said for the entirety of Magdalen Accepts the Invitation as Olson and Ringvold have hit a level of comfort and confidence that sparks sustained pleasure in the listening. In a time where beauty moves can be a cherished commodity, this album is a fucking treasure chest.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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