Articles: St. Thomas: The Last Cowboy in Norway?
(The Pulse Of The Twin Cities - October 23rd 2002)
Norway conjures up a lot of different images in the mind's eye of the average American, but few would think to connect it with wide-open prairies and rustic folk. That is, at least not until the arrival of Norway's pride and joy, St. Thomas, onto American indie-rock's musical shores. Led by former postman-turned-balladeer Thomas Hansen, St. Thomas' debut, I'm Coming Home, is yet another instance of outsiders providing a more compelling take on the (quickly tiring) Americana genre than their native counterparts.
With a voice reminiscent of an even higher-pitched Neil Young (a seemingly impossible achievement) and a similarly percussive acoustic guitar style, Hansen mimics the subtle charm of Young classics like 1978's Comes a Time. Hansen employs a relatively lush sound to dress up his folk, with arrangements that are heavy on banjo, harmonica, violin, and employ tasteful keyboard parts throughout. The combination worked in his homeland, where I'm Coming Home ended up in the Norway's Billboard Top Ten alongside Basement Jaxx and Shaggy (surely proof of diversity in Norwegian listening tastes).
Hansen, on the phone from Nashville where he is currently recording his sophomore album, still sounds surprised at the turn his life took with I'm Coming Home. "In the beginning I didn't believe anyone would enjoy listening to my music," admits Hansen. "The success in Norway was just something that improved every day. Every morning I woke up to more good news on the phone, and then all of the sudden it was the top ten. I've been very lucky."
Hansen can owe his success to a good deal more than luck. Like Young, he brings enough eccentric touches to the recording, like the spacey reverb of "Failure #1," or the impeccable placid lead guitar on "Strangers Out of Blue"). They lift the album out of the realm of an "homage" and into the sphere of "great folk albums." The album is a solid achievement in its own right.
The geeky bounce of album opener "The Cool Song" will bring a smile to any jaded listener's face with its opening lines of "Oh there are horses everywhere, little doggies barking in the chair." It's one of a series of charming couplets that Hansen employs in his simple-by-necessity lyrical style. (English is his second language, and his current visit marks his first time in the States). Hansen never even considered singing in his native tongue. "I never questioned whether I was going to sing in English or not," he says. "Everything I do is so influenced by American music. English just feels right. Norway is an interesting country with the whole language issue, because it kind of comes and goesó pretty much everyone uses English, and then, like, once every ten years or so a band will come around singing in Norwegian and be hugely popular. I think that the kind of music I play would sound silly if I sung in Norwegian. I never thought of doing it."
Although St. Thomas has managed a deadeye take on eccentric American folk music with their American debut, Hansen is already eager to move in a new direction. "Right now I am getting a little bit annoyed about getting labeled country music all of the time," claims Hansen. "People hear things in my music that I really don't hear myself. This new record I think will surprise some people. It still has things like the banjo, but it is more straight rock 'n' roll. We are going for sort of a cool, end-of-the-'60s kind of sound, and I'm really excited where it's headed." Norwegian psychedelia? Get ready people.
St. Thomas plays Sat., Oct. 26 at the Uptown Bar & Cafe with Faux Jean, Songs of Zarathustra, A Haw and a Hacksaw. 21+. 101 3018 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls. 612-823-4719. Call for time and cover charge information.
ROB VAN ALSYTNE.