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CD review: Nah Youn Sun — Lento

Lento coverNah Youn Sun: Lento
ACT Records, April 2013

Nah Youn Sun’s collaboration with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius continues to bear fruit. This is her third album with Wakenius on the ACT label (and her 8th studio album overall), and like her previous ACT releases they are supported by Lars Danielsson on bass and Xavier Desandre-Navarre on percussion. Having performed together for more than five years, the artists have an established sound, but for this disk the quartet is joined by Vincent Peirani, a versatile accordionist who seems to be able to conjure up at will the atmosphere of an Argentinian tango, a Parisian cafe or a quiet lullaby. It’s a combination which makes this album an enticing purchase even if you have the previous releases.

As in earlier disks, the tracklist is a mixture of adaptations of traditional songs, some surprising cover versions, and new compositions by Nah and her fellow performers, often showcasing her virtuoso range and scatting ability.

The disk opens with an intimate arrangement of a Scriabin piano prelude (Op 16 No 4 in E flat minor – a great key), which is the title track. Less than a minute in Scriabin’s version, in Nah’s arrangement the restless miniature is turned into a much more grounded piece – three times the length of the original, supported by the rich spacious acoustic which embraces Ulf Wakenius’s guitar sound, underpinned by double bass.

It’s unusual to find a classical composer – other than Bach – inspiring a jazz arrangement, and the other two cover versions on the album are perhaps equally eclectic: a 1948 cowboy song Ghost Riders in the Sky by Stan Jones, and a 1994 song from a concept album by Nine Inch Nails. In the cowboy song, Nah’s version opens accompanied only by percussion. Her voice takes on a hard edge, at one point swooping up to a top note and disintegrating into feedback, then embarking on an almost tuneless improvisation until the ultimate fade-out. Like the Scriabin arrangement, the version here is totally different from the original, but here Nah has taken away the harmonies rather than adding to them, giving a much sparer, emptier feeling than the original, perhaps appropriate for its ghostly theme. Conversely, with Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, the original is ghostly and at times sinister, while Nah’s version is fragile and lyrical.

The second track on the album is Lament, composed by Nah, a steadily building crescendo, with accordion and menacing drum beats, and Nah shows a more aggressive, harsh side to her voice as she shouts out her theme of individualism, resistance or even defiance. Empty Dream which follows, a contribution from Vincent Peirani, is almost two songs in one: a slow lingering lament accompanied only by double bass, followed by a more jaunty, up-tempo section where the accordion brings life and energy to the piece.

Perhaps as expected, the compositions by the individual band members often showcase their own particular instruments, though Wakenius’s Momento Magico also gives Nah an opportunity to demonstrate her agility and range in a track which is reminiscent of the spectacular Frevo from their first ACT album, Voyage. It is one of the many highlights on this album.

The only mild disappointment is the arrangement of Arirang – a pleasing, lilting lullaby version, but it would take a sensitive soul to detect the han that one might expect from Korea’s national tear-jerker and latest contribution to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural properties. It’s not going to bring an anguished lump to the throat like her Kangwondo Arirang from Same Girl – instead it’s a gentle, nostalgic arrangement which will remind you of comforting times from your childhood home.

The closing track, Nah’s New Dawn, starts with what feels like simple nursery rhyme and seems to grow into a prayer for the future. It’s a suitable note of valedictory optimism on which to end an album which shows a growing maturity and confidence in Nah’s own song-writing and which presents a wide variety of emotions and talents to the listener. It’s an album which doesn’t bowl you over on its first spin on the CD player, but it pulls you back again and again and makes you listen with growing enjoyment. And each time you re-listen you appreciate something new, and start looking forward to the next release. This is satisfying stuff.


Track list:

1. Lento – 03:04 (Alexander Scriabin / Youn Sun Nah)
2. Lament – 03:40 (Youn Sun Nah / Youn Sun Nah)
3. Hurt – 05:22 (Trent Reznor / Trent Reznor)
4. Empty Dream – 04:20 (Vincent Peirani / Youn Sun Nah)
5. Momento Magico – 05:32 (Ulf Wakenius)
6. Soundless Bye – 03:44 (Youn Sun Nah / Youn Sun Nah)
7. Full Circle – 03:36 (Vincent Peirani / Youn Sun Nah)
-. 초우 (Park Chun-seok – Korean release of CD only)
8. Ghost Riders In The Sky – 04:58 (Stan Jones / Stan Jones)
9. Waiting – 03:30 (Lars Danielsson / Caecilie Norby)
10. Arirang – 05:49 (traditional)
11. New Dawn – 03:42 (Youn Sun Nah / Youn Sun Nah)

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