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Live review: Emiliana Torrini at the Troubadour

March 31, 2009 |  2:11 pm

"I wrote this song for a man I fell in love with," Emiliana Torrini said during one of many charming, meandering interludes in her Troubadour set Monday night. "I think he was expecting something like Leonard Cohen, but I gave him this instead," and dived into the cheeky, '60s exotica-party "Jungle Drum," complete with Torrini's whimsical tribal beatboxing.

Torrini excels at finding such unexpected ways to get at classic songbook sentiments. The Icelandic singer's career as a singer-songwriter has dipped into all sorts of sounds, from the rich trip-hop of her international debut "Love in the Time of Science" to the Nick Drake-y folk of "Fisherman's Woman" to the eclectic, sometimes madcap guitar pop of her latest, "Me and Armini." The one constant is her voice, a strange and singular thing with a tiny touch of Kate Bush's  feral enunciation, but that still nestles easily into soft folk and washed-out effects.

Torrini rarely plays in the U.S., but if that's from any reservations about traveling or U.S. audiences, she didn't let on Monday night. A cracking backup band lent coherence to a set drawn largely from her last two albums, spiking the folk of "Fisherman's Woman" with atmosphere and implacable noises, and paring down the "Armini" cuts into unexpectedly swaggering rock songs. "Beggar's Prayer," an intimate acoustic piece from "Armini," became an evocative, sashaying full-band waltz onstage, and the fuzzily psychedelic "Gun" was worthy of a daylong session of bong rips and Sabbath catalog revisits.

In America, Torrini might be best known by proxy from her vocals on "Gollum's Song," from that little movie about the short fellows who lost a ring of some sort, so it was a welcome surprise to see fans hollering for deep-catalog songs that Torrini admitted she didn't remember how to play. One exception, though, was "Unemployed in the Summertime," which her band transformed from something cool and loungey on "Science" into a sun-dazed kiss-off onstage. After begrudgingly admitting it'd been more than a decade since she wrote lyrics like "I've only just turned 21/ Don't need money 'cause we're young," the 32-year-old Torrini added, "But I think young people are ugly anyway," to much delight in the crowd. That's an unpopular sentiment in rock music today, to be sure, but it's another instance of Torrini mining the unexpected to arrive at something new.

-- August Brown