Although Sarah Palu has made a name for herself as a film composer in Finland, and plays in a few bands, this is her debut as a solo artist, and on it she’s set the bar incredibly high for the future. While plenty of albums are tucked away after a week or two, this one sticks around and practically demands to be played, its nooks and corners are slowly discovered. Palu is primarily a kantele player, but she hardly defines by it. There’s an emphasis on strings, but the music she’s written, played by herself and several others, flows rapidly and easily across stylistic borders. Not folk, not dance, not world. About all you can say is that it’s always decidedly Northern – even the heady rush of the opener, “Alkuääni,” swims sweetly following a deliciously mournful line that’s somehow ineffably tinged with winter.
It’s a good beginning, but hardly preparation for the song that follows. “En Silti Ampunut” is a spidery, awkward melody that never follows an obvious course, so in the moments when it does resolve, it’s all the more satisfying. A duet by singers Tero Pajunen and Maija Pokela, it constantly appears on the verge of falling apart, yet somehow never does, constantly righting itself and pushing ahead. The feel of the piece is curiously reminiscent of some of Robert Wyatt’s 1970s work – which is intended as very high praise. The song is a clear signal that Palu has a lot of say, and a very individual way of saying it.
Much of what she creates is a kind of organic electronica, ideas and beats that borrow from EDM but play mostly on acoustic instruments (plus soundscape, rhythms, etc. – after all, this is the 21st century). “Irti”, for instance, employs kantele, accordion, percussion, harmonium, glockenspiel and voice along with very subtle touches of synth to create a track that has all the flow of electronica – the rises and drops and sparks and flames that have come to characterize so much of music. What she she has created is something that could be reproduced by a handful of musicians on acoustic instruments almost anywhere, but melding two worlds like that is no small feat.
Palu’s music is at its best when it’s amorphous and she becomes a shapeshifter of ideas. The beauty is that virtually all the album is like that, a thing of gentle, unexpected surprises, as when Maija Pokela’s voice singing the release notes. like pure water. at the end of “Meri ja kärpänen.”
The final track, “Ikivirta”, seems to reference Palu’s film work, full of anticipation, the sweeps of sound she creates under the plucked violin, while the spare, brooding notes Toumas Logrén’s dobro offers a sense of menace. It’s a perfect closer, filled with distance and the sense that there’s a destination somewhere ahead – but just beyond grasping. Overall, it’s one of 2020’s absolute gems. – Chris Nickson
Find the artist online.