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Anne Sofie Von Otter’s “I Let The Music Speak”

While reviews of cover albums are not usual topics for this column, Anne Sofie Von Otter has recorded a rather unique cover album that really merits discussion.

So who is this Anne Sofie Von Otter?

Well she is an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano who is from Sweden and known mostly for her operatic vocal work. She didn’t really come to the attention of most ABBA fans until 2001 when she recorded an album with Elvis Costello entitled “For The Stars.” On the album, Anne Sofie cover’s ABBA’s “Like An Image Passing By” and in addition to covering the song, ABBA’s Benny Andersson came in to not only play the piano for the track, but helped Elvis Costello mix the song as well as play the accordion on another non-ABBA related track. Whether the choice of “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” was one Anne Sofie made or Elvis Costello suggested as a known ABBA fan, it set the stage for Anne Sofie’s latest release known as “I Let The Music Speak” which takes its title from a song that appeared on ABBA’s final studio album, “The Visitors.”

By 2006, when we reach the release of Anne Sofie's “I Let The Music Speak,” the liner notes state that it’s a safe assumption that Benny Andersson is one of Anne Sofie’s favorite composers, and some early press for the album indicated that the album might be called, “The Benny Andersson Songbook.” While personally, I think such gushing affection towards Benny with barely a mention of Björn Ulvaeus brings disservice to the collection as Benny and Björn have been a joined at the hip song writing pair since the mid 1960’s. And outside of only one lone track, Björn’s name is attached to each track as a song writing credit. Perhaps it’s the convention of classical singers to give more weight to the artist responsible for the music than the vocals. In any case Benny’s music shines through on every track and Björn’s contribution is no less important. The discounting of Björn’s contribution is dismaying especially considering Björn wrote lyrics to an instrumental Benny composition as well as composing English lyrics for a song originally featuring Swedish lyrics especially for this album. Benny’s instrumental “Stockholm By Night” becomes “I Walk With You, Mama” to take advantage of the only instrument Anne Sofie is bringing to these songs, her voice and “Butterfly Wings” gives a new English voice to “Latt Som En Sommarfjäril.”

The album opens with ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came” and here we find a very stripped down version of the song, which suits the song. With little more than stringed musical instruments and some slight percussion, Anne Sofie portrays the plainness of the day before the mysterious “you” came. I think the vocalizing between the vignettes of the day fits in a little better here than ABBA’s original because it’s Anne Sofie’s voice as opposed to Frida kind of stealing a little bit of urgency from Agnetha’s vocals. Additionally, the vocalizing isn’t carried forth as an underlying layer under the telling of the vignettes and the softer presence of the percussion gives greater presence to the melody and gives a more haunting presence to the vocalizing.

“I Let The Music Speak” gives Anne Sofie’s collection its name and is one of ABBA’s most theatrical sounding songs, which is brilliantly executed with lead vocals by Frida on ABBA’s “The Visitors” album. I think Anne Sofie’s choice to strip the song of such grandiose theatricality and give it the feel of a Parisian chanson that makes you wish for a bottle of wine and a freshly baked baguette with the ambiance of a café alongside a cobblestone street makes it more effective for Anne Sofie to capture the essence of the song without competing with the original.

Sticking with yet another song that is considered one of Frida’s best moments in ABBA, “When All Is Said And Done” Anne Sofie also goes for a more subdued approach than the original. The song is a fairly strong willed salute to a relationship that has had its passion evaporate and both parties feel the need to move on. Here Anne Sofie gives the song kind of a more smiling glance back at the past than the original. Obviously the original is about the breakup of Benny and Frida’s marriage and there would be a lot more emotional attachment in Frida’s version. Anne Sofie’s version comes across as more of a break up of friends who part ways still very cordial although the likelihood of seeing each other again is between slim and none. While less intense, it’s still a beautiful rendition of the song.

“I Walk With You, Mama” as mentioned above, is the song with lyrics written especially for Anne Sofie’s album. Otherwise known as an instrumental track entitled “Stockholm By Night” that originates from Benny Andersson’s “November 1989” album, the lyrics here are about a solitary walk of a person with memories of their passed away mother. This song is the first of two on the album to actually feature Benny Andersson as a performing artist. Here he accompanies Anne Sofie’s vocals on the piano and while a very touching song, I find myself longing to hear Helen Sjöholm lend her vocals to this song to give it just that extra level of emotion that is not quite reached here in this rendition.

Anne Sofie is definitely ambitious by not only giving us “When All Is Said And Done” which was about Benny and Frida’s breakup of their marriage, she also gives us “The Winner Takes It All” which was the swan song to the breakup of the marriage of the other half of ABBA, Björn and Agnetha. This song really tends to shine when the vocalist is able to inject it with some emotional venom and it’s easy to see why it’s become such a showstopper in the musical “Mamma Mia!” when in the hands of a capable vocalist. Here Anne Sofie doesn’t even try to inject the song with any emotional venom, if fact, she seems to deliberately not inject any strong emotion into the song. Surprisingly, the understated approach actually works, and Anne Sofie gives it an equally affectionate smiling glance back at the past as “When All Is Said And Done.” The more biting lines of the song transform into a sense of longing as if mourning the end of the relationship rather than bitterly becoming a reason for ending it. This song works out to be one of unexpected surprises of the album.

“Butterfly Wings” is a new English version of “Latt Som En Sommarfjäril” from Benny’s first album with “Benny Anderssons Orkester” now affectionately just referred as BAO. The original was sung by Helen Sjöholm and aside from the change to English lyrics for Anne Sofie, both renditions of the song are almost identical sounding. I think it’s possible this song might get more attention here on Anne Sofie’s album because the original version on the BAO album was so overshadowed by “Vår Sista Dans” that it was easily overlooked and the beauty of the song was missed by all but the most diehard of BAO fans.

As one of the more overlooked songs in the musical “Chess” is “Heaven Help My Heart,” the original was sung by Elaine Paige. The song was overshadowed then by the duet, “I Know Him So Well” which earned both Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson the distinction of the longest running number one single as a female duet in United Kingdom history. And once “Someone Else’s Story” got added to “Chess” it seemed that “Heaven Help My Heart” became the bastard stepchild song from the show. Perhaps sensing this song’s need for some attention Anne Sofie helps give it a little more attention as the sole selection from “Chess” to appear on the CD version of the album (“Someone Else’s Story” is available as the exclusive bonus song on the iTunes version of Anne Sofie’s album.) Here Anne Sofie gives “Heaven Help My Heart” a rendition that evokes the essence of longing that the song needs to be convincing. In the hands of a less capable vocalist, the song builds a sense of static cling as if the person singing the song is incapable of making a decision without the aid of the person who is the object of affection in the song. Anne Sofie is able to avoid that and present a sense of longing from a distance. This song is another one of the highlights of the album for me.

If “Heaven Helps My Heart” is one of the highlights of the album for me, “Ljusa Kväller Om Varen” is one of the lowlights on the album. While this song originates from the musical “Kristina Från Duvemåla” the jazzy style scat vocals of this version ruin this song for me. In all fairness the song isn’t one of my favorites from Kristina either, but this version is just unbearable to me compared to the original.

Another point where I think Anne Sofie fails is this rendition of “I Am Just A Girl” which originally harks back to ABBA’s first album “Ring Ring” which even pre-dates ABBA being known as ABBA. The original version has a sense of charm and innocence that doesn’t seem to translate. Anne Sofie plays the song in a more vaudeville theatrical style but the only image it conjures up for me is that of a seventy-year-old prostitute trying to solicit some business, the kind of performance that would turn straight men gay.

Fortunately, not all the selections picked from “Kristina Från Duvemåla” turned out badly. “Ut Mot Ett Hav” turned out wonderfully. This is also a departure from the version featured in the musical, and would definitely be considered a more pop styled performance of the song. Anne Sofie interprets the song with a softness that only a woman can. The original was performed very broadly and theatrically by Peter Jöback who I get the impression was going for a sense of grandness with the song. Here Anne Sofie doesn’t try to recreate that and it works in what feels like a more accessible version of the song.

“After The Rain” is second of the two songs on the album to feature Benny Andersson playing the piano. Unlike the rest of the songs on the album, this one doesn’t feature lyrics by Björn Ulvaeus. Here the song was originally written by Benny with lyrics by Mats Nörklit for Benny’s 1987 album “Klinga Mina Klockor” under the title of “Efter Regnet” and unfortunately, Anne Sofie’s album doesn’t say if Mats is responsible for the new English lyrics or not. A very simple arrangement of Anne Sofie’s voice accompanied only by Benny on the Piano, helps reveal the beauty of the song. It’s amazing how Benny’s music can sound just take on as much poignancy with just a piano as it can with a traditional sized band all the way on up to a full symphony orchestra. If the goal Anne Sofie was trying to achieve was to showcase the versatility of the music of Benny Anderson I think she achieves it successfully.

For the standard CD version of the album, the closing track is “Money, Money, Money.” Here Anne Sofie gives a very rousing and enthusiastic version of the ABBA classic from the “Arrival” album. While the original was kind of theatrically played for a pop song, Anne Sofie is adding a lot of dramatization to really play with the song. The arrangement of the song brings back the Parisian café feel of “I Let The Music Speak” found earlier on the album. While nothing can really touch the original ABBA version of the song, I quite enjoyed Anne Sofie’s interpretation as she does try to make it her own. Definitely a more effective approach to trying to capture a rich man than Anne Sofie’s “I Am Just A Girl.”

If you happen to splurge and get the Japanese version of Anne Sofie’s album, the bonus track “Thank You For The Music” closes out the album. Here Anne Sofie plays the song to the hilt in a cross between vaudevillian theatricality and New Orleans style jazz and it works wonderfully. It’s really a shame that only the Japanese version of the album gets this track. The song really gives the feel that Anne Sofie let down her hair to indulge in some fun. And as an appropriate way to close out the album the final few seconds of the track borrow a few musical bits of the choruses of “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” which I think is an ingenious way to end the album.

And for those who give the iTunes version of the album a download, the opportunity to get Annie Sofie’s rendition of “Someone Else’s Story” which was originally added to the Broadway version of “Chess” and has become a staple in every version of the show since. Unfortunately, I can’t say the rendition of the song is on par with “Thank You For The Music” as the bonus track from the Japanese version of the album. While I think Anne Sofie gives a brilliant vocal rendition of this song, the violins used to underscore her vocals are just way too prominent and steal the focus away from Anne Sofie’s vocals. The song does make you long for a pair of scissors to cut the violins out of the picture and just let Anne sing. If you’re a big fan of violins or don’t mind them being very prominent, don’t hesitate to get this song from your local version of iTunes if they have Anne Sofie’s album.

Overall, Anne Sofie Von Otter’s album, “I Let The Music Speak” is well worth the investment. I personally was just expecting to only buy the album for the sake of adding it to my ABBA collection. I was pleasantly surprised in that it’s become an album that I will likely enjoy playing over the years to come. I think Anne Sofie gives a fitting tribute to the works of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus that hits the mark more than it misses it. If you get the chance to do so, try and get the Japanese version of the album to get “Thank You For The Music” it’s quite a unique version of the song, one that truly should have been the song to end the album on all versions of the album.