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Nalle - The Siren's Wave

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Artist: Nalle

Album: The Siren's Wave

Label: Locust

Review date: Apr. 15, 2008

There is perhaps something irrevocably contradictory about avant-garde folk, which is probably the best label one could apply to Glaswegian trio Nalle and their sophomore effort The Siren's Wave. While "folk" itself is a nebulous concept at best, we might make the general assumption that it implies an effort to return to a simpler, truly popular (in the sense of "of the people") music, in reaction to the commercially-calculated products of modern culture. Any music that aims to be avant-garde, on the other hand, would reject any such easy simplicity in favor of breaking with established traditions, questioning our conceptions of what music is and how it works. The Siren's Wave, intentionally or not, draws much of its interest from the tension between these two impulses, although without ever resolving it satisfactorily.

In the case of Nalle, there is no question of folk as a nationally-specific genre: teaming two Scottish instrumentalists with a Finnish singer, the band's music draws not only upon British and Scandinavian traditions, but also upon Asian and Middle Eastern ones, both in terms of the vast arsenal of ethnic instruments employed and the compositions themselves, which mix more conventional folk melodies with modal drones and meterless structures. This lack of national specificity, however, threatens to create its own problems if it suggests that there is such a thing as a universal "folksiness" that could somehow be harnessed to create a music that accesses some primal realm – in short, a kind of non-nationally specific ur-folk music.

For the most part, the songs on The Siren's Wave escape the problem of naïvely trying to evoke archaic authenticity through the avant-garde techniques they employ. More often than not, the group shuns simple melodies and straightforward structures in favor of loose, sprawling compositions that place vocalist Hanna Tuulikki (singing in both English and Finnish, and at times sounding very much like Joanna Newsom) against a lush backdrop of strings and winds. The album runs into problems, however, when it seems to take whatever evokes folksiness or authenticity (melody, instrumentation, song structure, or lyrics) as a direct route to a primal spirit or international "Volksgeist" rather than as something that is already mediated by the way that such folk tropes have already been used by other contemporary musicians. "Song of the Seven Sirens" falls deepest into this trap; with its faux medieval melody and lyrics, it falls somewhere between kitsch and parody despite not being intended as such. Here, a strained effort at evoking the past becomes all too apparent, making it impossible to take the music as seriously as it seems to want to be taken. It would need more levity and sense of play to work, and these are things that seem to be completely lacking here. Although not quite as egregiously, "First Light" suffers from the same weakness, with its pentatonic melody practically begging the listener to take it as a manifestation of Oriental mystique.

It would be simple enough to judge The Siren's Wave with a manifesto like recommendation, calling for less folk and more avant-garde. But to drop the first term of the dialectic would be to ignore the sense of loss and nostalgia that gives the album much of its appeal. If any lyrical theme persists throughout, it is the conviction that something has been forever lost, a feeling evident in titles like "Nothing Gold Can Stay" and "First Eden Sank to Grief." Within this context, we might read Nalle's sometimes awkward efforts to evoke the past as an acknowledgment that whatever musical purity or archaicness is in question here can never be fully recaptured, only mourned.

By Michael Cramer

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