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Scottish trio Nalle tread that fine line between outsider-art naivete and self-conscious phoniness, but on their two albums they've stayed on the right side of it. The group is led by singer Hanna Tuulikki, and like her bandmates Chris Hladowski and Aby Vulliamy she plays a trunkload of instruments: guitar, bouzouki, oud, kantele, viola, sruti box, several kinds of flute, et cetera. Their whimsical music is rooted in acoustic folk, but it's too freewheeling, wobbly, and spontaneous sounding to be much good for a sing-along.
When I first read Tuulikki's name, I assumed she was a refugee from Finland's thriving weirdo-folk scene, which is more or less centered on the Fonal label. Her mother was indeed Finnish, but she was born and raised in Sussex, England, her father's hometown. Tuulikki (which translates to "little wind") is actually her middle name, but as she explained to the online magazine Free, she uses it "because I think its meaning describes me and the things that I do better than my real surname." The band's name is also Finnish--it translates to "little bear"--and if you're sensing a pattern in these childlike choices, you're on target. The band members like the name because, of all the objects people cling to for security in childhood, they're mostly likely to keep a stuffed animal (say, a teddy bear) even when they grow up. Nalle's music relies heavily on intuition and instinct--they have little or no training on many of the instruments they play--but fortunately they can pull it off.
On the group's brand-new album for the local Locust label, The Sirens Wave, Tuulikki's capricious singing commands most of the attention. I've heard her compared to Bjork, and that makes some sense; she's not nearly as theatrical, but with her richly eccentric mannerisms, she sounds like she's skipping through a magical garden, playfully picking up English words and bending them till they sound like a language of her own. The arrangements are similarly gleeful and free spirited, leaping from drones to thick tangles of plucked strings to airy arpeggios--with their enthusiasm for odd sounds, Nalle remind me of the Fonal scene, but there are times when they sound almost like a stripped-down version of the Raincoats.
The group makes its Chicago debut Wednesday night at the Empty Bottle, sharing a bill with Paul Metzger, the Zoo Wheel, and A Light Sleeper.
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