Nicolai Dunger

Tranquil Isolation (Overcoat Recordings)

It's 2:20 a.m. and you've just come home from the bars with that special someone, or even, as Hank Jr. might have put it, that honky-tonk special you found. What to slap on the ol' CD player as the wee hours unfold?

You could do a lot worse than Nicolai Dunger's Tranquil Isolation, a graceful assemblage of ramshackle alt-country, brushed-snare laments, slithering violins and bourbon-breathed blues. Over it all is Dunger's rare voice -- it's a honeyed tenor, something like Rufus Wainwright with a Swedish accent, with a Van Morrison-like ability to hold onto a note while it fishtails all over the place like a teenager driving on ice.

Dunger's 2001 breakthrough, Soul Rush -- his most accessible album to that date -- brought him to the attention of Will and Paul Oldham, who saw him perform with Mercury Rev. The Oldhams were so taken that they flew Dunger in from his native Sweden to their Kentucky home, where Tranquil Isolation was made in a week.

And a worthy successor to Soul Rush it is. Where that album was marked by high peaks ("Dr. Zhivago's Train," "I'd Rather Die" and "Soul Rush") and low valleys (the last third of the record), Tranquil Isolation maintains cruising altitude from the jump to the hump.

Dunger's twin assets -- his voice and an increasingly hard-to-find facility for coming up with strong melodies -- are formidable, and the brothers Oldham have found a perfect acoustic amber in which to preserve them. Most songs are backed by only a brushed snare, acoustic bass and guitar, and the inspired fiddling of Jessica Billey. At their best, they capture that opiate-drenched front-porch feel of the Rolling Stones during their country-honkin' Beggar's Banquet/Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers golden era. And though lyrics are not Dunger's strong point, to put it mildly, he even comes up with a line on "Hundred Songs" that sounds like vintage Jagger: "I tried so hard/But I must exchange you, baby/With the drugs/And when the drugs don't work anymore/I'll send for you, little darling /Just like a song."

Send for this little darling of a record and you won't even need the drugs.

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