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Youn Sun Nah: Lento

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On the gently optimistic “New Dawn,” one of a half-dozen original compositions Youn Sun Nah includes on her eighth album, she softly sings of flowers waiting to bloom. Those unfamiliar with the South Korean vocalist, particularly with her emergence as an arrestingly powerful musical force since signing with the German ACT label in 2009, might be tempted to think that such gardenia-like fragility is her endemic style. The opening title track, a misty ode to nature’s healing powers, also supports that assumption, as does her soft-grey “Full Circle” and shimmering, angelic interpretation of the Korean folk ballad “Arirang.”

But they are merely the tip of the Sun Nah iceberg or, more accurately, the base of her volcano. Like a slightly more grounded Björk, she is boldly and unpredictably daring. There is the wordless “Momento Magico,” written by guitarist Ulf Wakenius (navigating his third far-flung voyage with Sun Nah), a dazzling, propulsive race through dark, twisted tunnels. There’s the funereal desolation of “Soundless Bye,” the steely anthem “Lament” and a brilliantly bruised reinterpretation of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” that rises from the ashes of self-destruction only to again descend to helplessness. And there’s the aching “Empty Dream,” a befogged reverie that seems, with marvelous incongruity, to unfold along jaunty Parisian back alleys. Most dazzling is her reworking of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a crafty—and remarkably fitting—transformation of the old workhorse into an apocalyptic nightmare.

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