A dramatic shift from its predecessors, Anja Garbarek's "Smiling & Waving" finds the singer's backgrounds shifting from the pure electronica stew of "Balloon Mood" into a bizarre fusion of electronica sounds and acoustic instruments and orchestras. In part, I suspect some of this has to do with the presence of producer/musician Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree and No-Man, the latter of which seems to be clearly an influence on "Balloon Mood"), but also on the strength of performances from musicians as diverse as Wilson, Steven Jansen and Richard Barbieri (Japan) and Mark Hollis (Talk Talk). The blend works well, providing a bizarre context and ever shifting backdrop for Garbarek's often delicate and fluttering vocals.
This diversity of backdrops is probably best illulstrated by "Spin the Context"-- anchored by a startlingly agile bass violin yields to a clarinet and string ensemble, with Garbarek over the top, tentative, uncertain, and yet full of confidence before it all breaks down in the bridge with a shuffling rhythm (played by Jansen on brushes with a stunning amount of taste and subtlety) that bleeds into the chorus. But this sort of dissection could be made of pretty much any piece on here, whether it's the "ethereal industrial" of "The Gown" or the electronica beats-meets-string orchestra of "Big Mouth". On top of all of this, we get just immense vocal performances-- I've not heard anyone come close to the passion that Kate Bush could evoke until I heard "Stay Tuned".
I realize this all comes off as an extraordinary amount of hyperbole, but from the moment I heard this album, with all its quiet fury, I've been pretty much taken by it. Remarkably, I actually think that Garbarek's followup to this, "Briefly Shaking", is her masterwork (thus far), but "Smiling and Waving is not a record to be missed. Highly recommended.