ith all of the attention directed toward Finland's vaguely incestuous avant-garde folk scene these days by the English-speaking critical hive-mind—as usual, we're about two years late—there seem to be relatively few mentions of the sense of history and tradition underpinning so much of it. I'm speaking not just of the recent history of free-jazz and American folk and avant-garde drone and chance musics, but much older folk traditions. Instruments like the kantele and jouhikko are as trad as it gets in Finland—some number of millenia old, depending on who you ask. That much musical history, to my Stateside mind at least, is kind of inconceivable.
Much of the beauty and wonder of Lau Nau's debut album, Kuutaarha, comes from these ancient instruments. Ms. Nau—Laura Naukkarinen, officially—plays, among other things, the kantele, a table- or lap-top stringed instrument, brightly plucked like a harp. Pekko Käppi—of Päivänsäde, for whom Lau Nau also sings—plays the jouhikko, a bowed lyre with a melody played on one string, with the other reserved for a constant, Middle-Eastern-style drone. Atop and around all that swirls a varied instrumentation of vox, acoustic and electric guitars, basses, found percussion, recorders, and whatever else happened to be lying around that made a noise.
Kuutaarha starts strong, with a trio of pop-song-length numbers that set the stage beautifully. "Jos minulla olisi" starts the record with a heavy sitar-like drone and moaned vocals before a lovely acoustic guitar melody takes over, intertwining with equally lovely vocals and jouhikko scrapes. As it moves, ever forward, it gains almost imperceptibly in intensity. "Kuula" is the most traditional Western-folk-sounding tune here, with its simple, lilting acoustic guitar, and its verse-chorus structure; except that there's but one verse, and a single lengthy chorus of gorgeous "aah aah aah" vocals. The strongest song here, "Pläkkikanteletar," focuses for much of its length on tape hiss and electric feedback—noise, certainly, but much lighter—with vocals doubled on what sounds like a child's bullhorn toy (the liners mention a "witch laugh megaphone." They also mention "colorful juice glasses"). Then, all that suddenly drops out, to be replaced by fiercely plucked tabla and kantele, and and ever-growing shroud of feedback and static.
These elements reappear throughout the album, with some variations, but even given its aleatoric nature, our Laura has only a few, very specific things in mind. "Jodahataja Joleen" may have the feel of a jaunty maypole dance, and "Hunuun" gets very bass-heavy and dark, bringing in the not-quite-funereal accordions, but the sound throughout stays its course. That might mean that a chunk of the middle of Kuutaarha simply comes untied and floats away, but that never detracts from Lau Nau's oblique, strange, old-is-new beauty.