Brendan Mulvhill calls Wolf Like a Stray Dog, the debut LP from his band Norwegian Arms, a “document of a year spent in Siberia.” That brief description may cause you to imagine an album emotionally similar to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, perhaps with less heartbreak. But don’t let that one-sentence description make you think the album is something it’s not. Wolf Like A Stray Dog is a 25-minute LP with 11 short, exuberant songs that grab you immediately and don’t let go.
Mulvihill spent a year in Tomsk, Russia on a Fulbright Scholarship, bringing along a mandolin because it “was way easier to travel with and I knew I’d be able to get a guitar in Russia easily. But a mandolin is a little harder to come by.” He took mandolin lessons from when he was 11 til about 14 or 15, but stopped playing it until he went to Russia. It was his primary instrument during his stay their and became the focal point of the album. It is also a big reason the music is as fun as it is.
“Each track is more or less like a vignette in a way,” Mulvihill says, explaining the each song came from different experiences during his trip. “She Lives in a Secret Town,” for example, was inspired by the formerly-classified town of Seversk, which the Soviets kept off of maps to hide the existence of a nuclear power plant. (While it is declassified, non-residents still aren’t allowed in.) In Siberia, Mulvihill worked at a center that was introduced to him as “The Formerly British Council Supported English Centre.” His initial reaction was, naturally, “why don’t you just call it the English Center?” That experience became track 2’s “At the Formerly British Council Supported English Centre.” Another song’s inspiration, “Tired of Being Cold,” needs no explanation.
His stories don’t always take narrative form, but the lyrics on this album are secondary to wonderful instrumentation, which gives the album its fascinating energy. Brendan credits this juxtaposition—upbeat songs coming from a less-than-upbeat place—partly to self-therapy and partly to the other half Norwegian Arms: percussionist/drummer Eric Slick. While he didn’t consciously intend to write upbeat songs, his songwriting “functioned as a form of separating myself mentally from what was around me.” When Mulvihill returned to the U.S. with these songs, he and Slick quickly hashed them out with rhythmic and tribal elements to them—something Brendan was going for and something that Eric “pick[ed] up on immediately.”
For an album that was inspired by Russia, the music itself is closer to traditional Irish and American folk styles, manifesting itself in what is often described as “weirdo folk.” “I definitely tried to expose myself to as much traditional music [in Russia] as possible, but…it’s kind of hard. You turn on the radio in Russia and you hear Lady Gaga,” the writer explains. “And, also, contemporary Russian culture seems to want to distant itself from traditional.”
The stories are informed by his experiences in Russia, but the music itself seems more inspired by Mulvihill’s childhood and adolescence. His parents “were very much into contemporary Irish music,” exposing Brendan to bluegrass and folk early on. All of these experiences—Mulvihill’s travels, his mandolin lessons, his early exposure to folk music—have led to one of the year’s most unique and lovable albums. Stream it and love it yourself here.
Note: A full transcript of the interview with Brendan Mulvihill quoted throughout this article will be posted next week.
Note #2: Wolf Like a Stray Dog will be released on December 21st and Norwegian Arms will celebrate it (and the Mayan Apocalypse) that night at Johnny Brenda’s. Get your tickets here.