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Music review: Iris Dement, Elina Duni

Over the last year no “female vocal” albums have moved me more deeply. In their different ways, each defies description, and is a very “unlikely” success. Respectively, they were recorded in the singer’s living room in Iowa, and in a studio in south-east France. Iris Dement interprets Russian poetry, in a manner no one else would ever have attempted… or imagined.  Elina Duni addresses poetry and traditional song from her birthplace, Albania…with three brilliant Swiss jazzmen.


Iris Dement. Image courtesy of herself.



Q: What on earth could North American country and gospel musics – Iris Dement’s home turf –  have to do with Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) – one of Russia’s best-loved poets?

A: Nothing at all… until Iris Dement finally got around to reading the anthology of Russian poetry that a friend had lent her some years earlier.

Not coincidentally, Iris and her husband Greg Brown – brilliant singer-songwriters, both – have a daughter, adopted in 2005 from Russia, when Dasha was six years old.

I first heard Iris Dement in 1992, via her debut album Infamous Angelimmediately, I knew she was a singular artist – equally so as as singer and songwriter.

Infamous Angel included Our Town, her very first song, written just five years earlier, when Iris was 25.

In 1995 the world in general “discovered” Iris when Our Town provided the musical conclusion to the “iconic” TV series Northern Exposure.

Iris Dement has long been my “litmus test” – and my preferred cure – for an allergy which afflicts too many Australians.

A twangy voice and/or any whiff of “country” are enough to convince many listeners that the singer is – by definition – dreadful, their songs stupid, their politics “neanderthal”.

(the opposite condition is also far too common – some folks just love anything they perceive as “country”, no matter how dreadful the singer, however inane/cliched/phoney/reactionary the song)

If you are “allergic” to “country”, please listen to Our Town several times in succession, attentively; chances are excellent that Iris will demolish your prejudice and that you will be moved, deeply.

Her irresistible first song was no fluke; although far from prolific, Iris has recorded a substantial number of remarkable original songs, superbly sung.

Born in Arkansas in 1961, she was her parents’ youngest child – her father’s 14th, her fervently Pentecostal mother’s 8th.

One of her albums is mostly devoted to the hymns with which she grew up; tellingly, the disc’s most uncanny song and performance is its one Iris original. (He Reached Down is her take on the story of The Good Samaritan)

Her connection to “old time religion” and its adherents is deep, intimate.  But Iris is not a Believer; two of her finer songs – respectively, sweetly wry and autobiographical/scarifying – are Let the Mystery Be and The Night I learned How Not To Pray.

Her Wasteland Of The Free precisely and savagely skewers the USA’s faux-righteous Religious (and secular) Right.

All of the above is relevant (songs referred to above are entirely Iris’s own, from various earlier albums) to the nature and success of The Trackless Woods; it sees Iris remain resolutely her American self, musically, whilst turning Anna Akhmatova’s Russian poems into perfectly crafted songs, in English.

Anna Akhmatova


Until she belatedly read several pages of Anna Akhmatova’s work in the anthology, Iris had never heard of the Russian poet.

Immediately, however, Iris felt compelled to sing Anna’s verses.

Anna survived under Stalin…just.

Some of those closest to her did not.

Her Russian “world” was very different to Iris’s American one, but their written responses are crucially alike; both range from naked lamentation through to defiance – tender in one lyric, sardonic in another.  Their lyrics are usually concise, spare. Both use simple language, often to complex effect.

Iris delivers Anna’s words (in English translations by Babette Deutsch or Lynn Coffin) with remarkable clarity, in every sense.

Accompaniments are generally spare, mostly centred on Iris’s piano. Occasionally, things get a tad more rousing, rockabillyesque. Leo Kottke fans will have an enjoyable surprise, and he is not the album’s only fine guitarist.

Throughout, Iris’s vocal phrasing and original melodies prove an uncannily perfect fit for Anna’s poems.

To hear the difference between a great singer/interpreter and a merely good one, listen to Iris’s almost unbearably poignant delivery of the final couplet in Lot’s Wife:

Alone in my heart, uneclipsed, unforgotten/Is she who gave over her life for one look

(to understand what is behind Anna Akhmatova’s 1924 retelling of an Old Testament tale, remember the potentially fatal consequence for those who exhibited nostalgia for any aspect of pre-Soviet Russia)

Equally compelling, albeit utterly different, is Iris’s delivery of  The Last Toast  – a tiny, bitter-sardonic poem which raises its glass To God who didn’t save us, or try.

Alas, in the world of free, freely and legally available audio and video, high quality versions (as opposed to wobbly, amateur, badly recorded videos) of this singular album’s best poems/songs are nowhere to be found in cyberspace.

Take the plunge; if you are allergic to “twang”, to “country”, to the very idea of  “Russian poems become English-language songs”, you may not instantly love or “get” The Trackless Woods.

However, if you give it your full attention, more than once, it will surely get right under your skin!


Links, additional info

Purchase from Australian distributor.

Artist’s site.

A very revealing, interview-based article in No Depression


Elina Duni. Photo by Nicolas Masson for ECM Records



The title means “swallow”, the bird symbolically deployed in the album’s titlepiece.

That lament’s anonymous author was one of thousands of Albanians who fled to Italy between the 15th and 18th centuries. (their descendants are known as Arbëreshë, or Italo-Albanians)

Elina Duni was born in Tirana (Albania’s capital, aka “Tirane”) in 1981.

Her family fled to Switzerland when the singer was 10; Elina was just 5 when she first sang on stage, in Albania.

The 21st century adult artist’s second quartet album for ECM Records is even better than its predecessor.

Her very alert, highly interactive quartet’s other members are Swiss jazz players – pianist Colin Vallon, double bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Norbert Pfammatter.

Fear not!

This is definitely not one of those unfortunate attempts at jazz-folk “fusion”; nothing here is lamely “hip” or tediously “clever”, nor is there any of the cutesy-stilted sentimentality which tends to afflict “jazzers” when they address “folk” music.

Elina Duni’s quartet is “4-way conversational”, as opposed to “singer atop accompanists”.

The music is as creative, surprising, diverse as any good jazz ensemble’s, but its rhythmic accents are much more “Balkan” than “jazz”, its sensibility much more “European” than “American”.

As you can hear above, the leader has very precise control of her fine voice, a keen sense of a song’s essence, and she is not trying to be a “jazz” singer.

Elina inclines to gravitas, not gush, to drama rather than melodrama.

Musical choices can be surprising (the piano is sometimes “prepared”, one song is a highly effective duet for singer and drum kit) but never gimmicky.

Superb recording quality fully captures the nuanced, subtle, occasionally startling singing and playing.

Elina Duni is also a songwriter – her next release is a “solo, singer-songwriter” project.

Here, however, she is no song’s author; the majority are “traditional, from Albania”, composed before their singer was born, and mostly about thwarted love, emigration and exile.

The CD booklet has Albanian lyrics and good English translations, but these songs and performances transcend words.


Links, additional info

Artist’s site

Interview-based article

ECM label background on Dallëndyshe

Published in 'non-western' musics, aka 'world music' 'western' musics music songs, in English songs, not in English


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