Ingrid Karklins,
Anima Mundi
(Green Linnet, 1994)

Once again, Ingrid Karklins stretches the boundaries of Latvian-influenced American folk music and avant garde rock.

Anima Mundi follows up on the heels of the startling A Darker Passion and proves that Karklins still has plenty to say and do with her music. I wouldn't say she does it quite so well here; while her previous album grabbed me roughly by the ears and made me listen, Anima Mundi is content to sit back and let me notice it all on my own. And in some ways, this album doesn't quite meet to the standards which made Karklins' first album so very exceptional. Perhaps it's because the work is no longer quite so unique -- I've heard what she can do before, so now she has to go a little further to impress me -- but I can't let this album spin as endlessly as the first.

At the same time, I still find myself moved by the power of her words, the uniqueness of her presentation. If I hadn't already been so impressed with what came before, the superlatives would be flowing much more quickly here.

The music on Anima Mundi sometimes seems headed for ambient status, but that impression never has more than a moment to settle in before some twist or edge refocuses your attention. Some of the songs are sung in English, others are in Latvian, and Karklins has written much of the music herself, relying less on new versions of traditional tunes. The first track, for instance, is called "Ligo" and has its source of inspiration in Latvian midsummer rites. If you read the translation, the song invokes Janis, herald of the summer solstice, to strike his copper drums and blow his copper horn to bring the new season in.

"Race the Sky" is part song, part poem, filled with colorful images of the sky: "Watching the white, white clouds / race the blue, blue heaven / The orange-bright clouds in the blue-black sky / Race the sky to meet the violent storm." "(Never) Shake My Soul" evokes memories of a long-ago love: "I wonder / Do you still read love poems of sweet, dark girls in high school? / Did I bring you passion in the cold?" The song is slow and reflective.

"Heavy Stone" is a musical collage ("Giddy, bright girl / Warm, sweet and round / Where is your fire?") which uses heavy percussion to bring it to conclusion. "Andros" has as its sources a Latvian song and a French mountain dance; the result is one of the livelier tunes on the album (in part because of Karklins' sweet whiste playing), and it has a more traditional flavor than most here. "Eyes I" is another sung poem, although this one drones a bit too much for my tastes.

"Goddesses/Laime" combines the English dance tune with another Latvian song, and is one of my favorite tracks on this album. The dance is slow and stately -- somber, even -- and utilizes a lovely mix of violin, cello and whistle over a steady bass line. The song, about the Latvian version of Fate, is slow and wistful.

"Hiro" is a slow Hebidrian tune, which benefits from Karklins' string arrangement. "Kas Dimd," drawn from another Latvian traditional song, marks the arrival of Perkons, the Latvian thunder god and herald of winter. Karklins here has an almost plaintive sound to her voice, and Malford Milligan's background vocals add excellent ambience to the tune, which is alternatively subtle and strident.

"Between Breaths" has an ambling feel to it, even as Karklins sings of loneliness, getting a bit harsher near the end as she vows to "burn you out of my heart," as well as her eyes and mouth, and promises to dance again. It's a nice reversal on what otherwise might have been an overly sentimental song. "Venom" is mostly instrumental, repeating only the line "...and the venom rises again..." in various shapes and sizes.

"She Says" takes its atmospheric introduction from the Irish air, "The Banshee," before introducing a new bass line and heading into a melodic Zulu love song: "She says: Love is a fire / She says: I'm not in love, just trapped by the flames / Slow-burning fire / Murmur of the heart." More Latvian sources are the root of "Horses," which deals with the horse god Usius, Auseklis the morning star, and the thunderer Perkons. "Sencu elpa" (which translates to "Ancient's breath" is another slow and introspective song full of lush imagery ("Picking blueberries in the forest / The ground: soft and mossy green / There are tall women moving among the tall trees..."). The album concludes with "Anima Mundi," a brief instrumental spotlighting Karklins on violins and rebec.

Anima Mundi suffers from a lack of some of the wilder, rockier tracks found in A Darker Passion. This collection of mellower tunes is good -- her singing, playing and composing are as solid as ever -- but I don't sense as much of an imaginative spirit at work here. Perhaps Karklins, finding a groove which worked, decided not to stray too far from that path. However, she should explore a bit more, I think -- I think we'll like where she takes us. And I'll certainly be back to see where she goes next.

[ by Tom Knapp ]