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Islaja - Ulual YYY

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Artist: Islaja

Album: Ulual YYY

Label: Fonal

Review date: May. 1, 2007


Islaja’s third album Ulual YYY fades out on a note of rustic lyricism, with field recordings of twittering insects and honking geese overtaking an unraveling braid of keyboard melodies. But most of the music that precedes it is more redolent of hours spent hunkered over the tape machine or sunk in deep introspection than of a walk in some dark Karelian wood.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Merja Kokkonen crafted the record alone, save for some sax and bass assistance from Jukka Răisănen and drums on one track by Arvi Lind, and it definitely feels like a one-woman affair. The music is often static and layered, its progress somewhat halting in contrast to the fluid churn that she and Răisănen brought when they toured the US in 2005.

Which isn’t to suggest that there’s no melody, because Kokkonen has penned some strong ones, and she sings them quite powerfully. Her voice, which is direct and full of emotion that communicates ache and exhilaration across the language divide (all the singing is in Finnish), is really her strongest instrument. She has a rare instinct for the telling detail, dropping a note down when you might expect her to ascend a scale, overdubbing her voice into slightly off-pitch unisons instead of close harmonies, or whispering through a walky-talky mic to make distortion coat her words like dust on a rarely touched bookshelf.

There’s something bird-like in the motion of her voice, the way it floats above and then retreats from the clatter of chimes over wheezing accordion and accelerating handclaps on “Muukalais-silmă,” or swoops through the yawning expanses between the deliberate electric bass, rasping violin, and eerie whistling on “Psătyneet Planeetat.” In the sounds Kokkonen selects, and in the sense that even when she’s working at her home studio late into the night there’s a window open to an outdoors devoid of humanity, “Ulual YYY” reminds me of Alastair Galbraith’s splendid 90s recordings. Here’s hoping they get a chance to collaborate.

By Bill Meyer

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