Nalle, the experimental folk trio led by Hanna Tuulikki, taps into the weird multiplicitous loveliness of the natural world, visiting not just the prettiness of flowers and sunshine and baby animals, but the primitive power of howling winds and pitchblack nights, wild seas and sharp teeth. In The Siren's Wave, their second album, madrigal harmonies and waltz time laments morph into wild keenings and improvisatory abandon. You may hear a trace of birdsong or gypsy tunes, alongside guitar, clarinet, violin, and a Finnish zither called the kantele. But what you will not hear is any kind of sentimentality about the past or the woods or anything else. These are folk songs that take the earth seriously and with awe. "In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous," Aristotle observed, and these British folk improvisers would agree wholeheartedly, I'd guess.
Tuulikki is half Finnish, hence the kantele and the band's name which means "little bear" or "teddy bear" in her mother's language. Finland is, of course, a hotbed for altered, improvisatory folk these days, but Tuulikki is more grounded in a British scene. She and her bandmate Chris Hladowski are both in the Family Elan. Hladowski and Aby Vulliamy, who plays strings here, belong to the One Ensemble as well. As a result, the trio draws on all kinds of traditional music. You can hear Eastern European harmonies and rhythms alongside Celtic keens and free, very modern improvisations. Field recordings and a variety of technologically-derived instruments--Radford valve oscillator, Moog, an old gramophone--sit beside age-old sounds like jaw harp and recorder. Everything old is new again. Everything new takes on the mossy patina of the natural world.
Consider, for instance, "Nothing Gold Can Stay", the opening track, which arises out of a hiss of static, a scatter of hesitant blues guitar notes. Its drone builds slowly, gradually, and then you hear Tuulikki's voice, wordlessly, primitive, a little nasal, as it crescendos into a high Doppler-shifting drone. She has a slight hitch in her voice that might remind you a little of Joanna Newsom, but only superficially, for Tuulikki is far more feral and unpredictable.
Traditional sources come into play. The long "Voi Ruusuni (O Rose)" is based on a Finnish gypsy tune. It starts in a distorted buzz of guitar, though, hedged with plucked notes, spooky with shivering cymbals. Here Tuulikki's singing sounds almost Asian, with its odd harmonies and witchy threatening sweetness. There is a clarinet wandering through thickets of prickly sound and a mouth harp boi-i-ing in the background
"Secret of the Seven Sirens" is perhaps the most overtly Celtic of these tunes, its sharp, minor key harmonies paced by a sad waltz rhythm, as bounded by tradition in whistling flute and hand-slapped drums as it is deeply, deeply strange. It breaks, two minutes in, from rigorous moorings, the three-time slipping away and the vocals turning into pure wordless tone, flowering and receding. Then, just as suddenly, a flute gambols into view, drums and handclaps again ground the tune and the whole ghostly interval has passed like it never happened. Echoey "First Eden Sank to Grief" closes the disc, a slow layering of bell-like tones and wild, intersecting cries. It sounds as old as ruined churches, as sad as funeral chants. Yet at the same time that it is otherworldly beautiful, it feels grounded in natural imagery. There are delicate spars of sunshine lighting its gloomy interiors, bringing the wild into its solemn enclosures. The natural world, here and on the rest of lovely Siren's Wave is as starkly lovely, as humbling and as weirdly comforting as ever. • Jennifer Kelly