Marína Ósk - One Evening in July (Album Review)

The region known as the 'Nordic countries' is known worldwide for its progressive politics, cold weather, and tradition of music performance of the highest standard. Icelandic jazz singer Marína Ósk met her band while studying for a master's degree at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and while the rimy elegance of Iceland can be heard in Ósk's vocals, there's a warmth which belies the geographical location from whence this group comes. The ensemble's academic roots are evident across Ósk's new album "One Evening In July", notably in the sophisticated playing and singing styles. However, what might have been academically-cold playing across the album's eight tracks is softened by human touches and romantic notions, like the heat of a summer's sun setting over the chilly North Atlantic.

"One Evening in July" is Ósk's sophomore album, with her debut "Athvarf" released in 2019. Her debut featured a more comprehensive band sound and was sung mainly in Icelandic. Her second album is a more restrained, minimal, and clean offering that alternates between Icelandic and English and leans heavily on Ósk's mastery of the delicate. 

Opening the album, "Samtal við sólu" develops over percussive double bass from Johan Tengholm, explorative trumpet from Erik Tengholm, and shimmering guitar chords from Mikael Máni Ásmundsson while Marína's solid yet fragile vocals hit the notes with the precision of an archer. On "Einsemd", Ósk sings performatively, a storyteller as much as a singer, and carefully moves between forte and pianissimo voicings. A mischievous bassline interplays with a tantalising guitar solo for an exhilarating instrumental section. Elsewhere on the track, the trumpet of Erik Tengholm applies splashes of colour to the already picturesque scene.

While this reviewer is not familiar with the Icelandic language beyond the works of the many famous musicians from that country, when Ósk sings in her Icelandic tongue, there's an effortless sense of expression. Her English language songs are sung with a native-level accent, though the accent can veer towards a contrived Americanism, like on the peppy and well-written "Hey Love!". However, the other English language songs here, notably the sultry "The Moon and the Sky", which allocates generous amounts of time to heartbreakingly sweet instrumental passages, and the sole cover version, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning", blend nicely together with the mystery of her native language to create an intriguing and flavorful collection. 

These intentionally romantic and patient tunes are in no rush to get to their destination. The arrangements seem to operate freely from the restrictions of tempo; in a deliciously chilled hypnotic slew of rich tones and nuanced emotion. Yet there is enough variety to ensure it never burns or freezes. The sullen "Við Tjörnina..." adds a tasteful dynamic in terms of mood, and the upbeat "Endaspretturinn" is full of hopeful optimism. These tones are reflected in the innocent cover art by Rebecca Santo, which shows an animation of the ensemble performing to a sunset, with traces of light and colour amid the darkening landscape.

The musicianship here is top-class, and Ósk is a familiar and likeable vocalist who draws you into her songs. Yet perhaps what works best about this album is how the musicians collaborate. Tengholm's trumpet and Ósk's voice are remarkably simpatico and often marry in a mellifluous and enchanting way, like rivers or lovers. In addition, Ósk is a vibrant lyricist who often alludes to the fantastical ("an overload of error and trials hides there unbothered, undiscovered"), and her understated songwriting carefully balances instruments and voice. However, the timbre of Marína Ósk's voice has all the richness of a top-drawer instrument.