Ingrid Karklins,
A Darker Passion
(Green Linnet/Willow Music, 1992)

It was a good friend's Latvian ancestry which caused me to order a copy of an Ingrid Karklins album from Green Linnet. When I proudly presented it to her, she was delighted -- but she didn't like it and soon gave it to a more receptive sibling. Fortunately for me, I'd ordered two and kept one for myself.

Karklins' A Darker Passion was my first non-Celtic purchase from Green Linnet, so I wasn't sure what to expect. It certainly was unfamiliar territory, but territory worth exploring.

Mixing an earthy folk sound derived from her Latvian and American roots with her own sensual art-pop stylings, Karklins achieves a sound both soothing and unsettling. Her avant-garde vocalizations could never be mistaken for a traditional cover, and yet their origins often break through the wall of electric sound she's erected around them.

The effect here is one of multiple layers, building foundations of music and then adding to it with new levels which never overshadow the old. The focus, in all but one track on this album, is Karklins' voice -- sometimes providing vocal harmony to herself -- but she hasn't skimped on the instrumentation supporting her. Even alone, she'd be quite an orchestra; Karklins is credited with playing violins, keyboards, whistle, kokles, rattle and rebec. Also appearing on various tracks on this album are Mike Barnett on guitar, Steve Bernal on fretless bass, John Hagen on cello, Rudolphe Lege on saxophone and "racket," Heather Moore on viola, Craig Ross on guitar, Susan Voelz on violin and Mark Williams on electric cello, fretless bass, acoustic baritone bass and occasional vocals, plus an assortment of acoustic and electric percussion by Thor and Zebran O. Williams. Malford Milligan adds an additional layer of vocals beneath Karklins' own on several tracks, often manifesting as a harmonic wail or moan which adds a haunting atmosphere to the album.

The recording begins with a very different version of the traditional "Leatherwing Bat." The quiet beginning is deceptive; soon, it grows forceful, ponderous, possibly even angry at times -- and it quickly became my favorite version of the song.

Another highlight of the album is a Karklins original, "Crack the Slab." Drawing a classical imagery -- Pygmalion and Galatea, Mephisto and Faustus, Artemis, Medusa and others -- the song builds on itself to create a sensuous texture, accompanied by Karklins' and Milligan's nonverbal harmonies, plus Karklins on keyboard and rattle and Thor on conga.

Part of the album's charm is the Latvian language itself. There is a fairly even split between English and Latvian lyrics (translations provided in the liner notes), and it's a fun language to hear in songs like "Ar vilcinu Riga braucu," a Latvian traditional about riding to town on a wolf because the wolf ate the family colt, and the lilting "Es apkalu ozolinu," a traditional piece immediately followed by a Karklins instrumental, "Oceans apart." Another traditional is the poetic "Visas manas sikas dziesmas," which has only four oft-repeated lines (translated): "All of my little songs / Flowed into the willow. / The willow began to sway, / The branches began to shimmer." This tune also boasts a very nice whistle part to give Karklins a brief break from singing.

"Hiro/Smitten" begins with a traditional chant which, frankly, could stand a few less repetitions, but the Karklins original part ("Smitten") about "that incredible longing" manages to evoke that very feeling through a very gentle (initially) melody which waxes and wanes in vigor. Karklins and Williams combined forces to compose the album's sole instrumental track, "Time/Incredible March of the Spiny Lobsters," which implements a good number of the string musicians listed earlier. Karklins lays a few violin tracks of her own on this one, which begins slow and rapidly gains pace for a very Gypsy-like sound. (Apparently, those spiny lobsters are lively marchers.)

The final track, "Metenitis," is another Latvian traditional about Metenitis, the herald of spring, and Laima, who divines one's fate. Starting slow, it builds into a joyful celebration of the season, mixed with a racket and bit of chaos in the sound for which nearly every musician is credited.

It was fortunate indeed that I first heard A Darker Passion without expectations, because I certainly couldn't have imagined Karklins' very original sound. This is assuredly an album worth checking out, for its cultural uniqueness as well as Karklins' strength as a singer and musician. Put it in your stereo and I predict it won't be coming out for a while.

[ by Tom Knapp ]