By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
By Natalie Gallagher
By Erik Thompson
By Jeff Gage
By Loren Green
While normally my Finnish elocution is superb, my efforts to pronounce Laura Naukkarinen's name have been marked by dramatic hesitation, stretched vowels, nervous gulps for air, and a slight rasp of uncertain origin. Which isn't too far off from how the Finnish folk singer delivers her own held notes. The difference is that Lau Nau is quite certain of her whispers, even when she abandons the words on the lovely "Kuula" after one verse and instead exhales aaahs that either slip into silences or glissade higher and higher to near-angelic peaks.
Kuutarha, a rare domestic-label document of Finland's verdant free-folk scene, is the singer-instrumentalist's debut and features support from Päivänsäde, one of her trio of bands (she also plays in Anaksimandros and Kiila). Throughout Kuutarha's 10 songs, Naukkarinen settles her voice over the album's spare backing even as she unsettles the listener with her more haunted vocalizations. Her slender voice evokes both a cottage fireplace and the sustained whistles of chilly tundra winds outside. Doubling her throat to two tracks at times, the resonant microtones that result make songs like "Pläkkikanteletar" and "Kivi Murenee Jolla Kävelee" hum. The latter, a transplanted Nepalese traditional ballad, feels right at home alongside indigenous instrumentation like the kantele (a cordophone that is the country's national instrument) and the jouhikko (a horse-hair fiddle played on the knee), showing a kinship between the two different terrains.
On "Johdattaja-Joleen," Naukkarinen doesn't need to sing, and instead picks some ancient Appalachian banjo and mandolin. At least until she hits some Tibetan chimes and crunchy French musique concrète, creating a fascinating, albeit gruesome, cultural wreck. For the buzzing "Kuljen Halki Kuutarhan" and clanging "Tulkaa," she invokes the Nico stranded on John Cale's shivering Desertshore, maintaining levity amid an instrumental din made by kitchen sinks and cowbells, beer cans and tamburas, bowed cymbals and willow whistles. Noises both traditional and random attain a makeshift beauty as they near Lau Nau's swaddling voice, and she finds splendor in the otherwise hard-to-parse clamor.
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