Review by Andy Kellman
Just before entering a seemingly inescapable cul-de-sac after 2006's Paper Tigers, Sasu Ripatti evades it by throwing Luomo into reverse. Convivial, however, is not quite a revisitation of Vocal City or The Present Lover, two of the most seismic house albums released during the decade. It's the most song-oriented Luomo album, with the lyrical and vocal contributions expanded from Paper Tigers' featured voice, Johanna Iivanainen, to include fellow Europeans Cassy, Sascha Ring, Sue Cie, and an "anonymous" gent named Chubbs, as well as Americans Robert Owens and Scissor Sister Jake Shears. While this varied mix of voices suggests diffuse results, the two least likely collaborators -- Shears and Owens -- are kept, respectively, to tongue-twisting whispers and a series of low-key cut-ups. For its lack of rush-inducing highs and novel sounds, the album is immensely pleasurable, with fleet keyboard vamps and percussive effects that stab and flick ricocheting off pliant, bounding basslines. The only slip is "Nothing Goes Away," damp and squishy 21st century Euro-hip-house that wouldn't stimulate much more in instrumental form.
After 2006's disappointing Paper Tigers, I had wondered if Finland's Sasu Ripatti might quietly abandon Luomo, his moniker for a seductive, dub-laced brand of vocal house that resulted in two of this decade's most gorgeous albums, Vocalcity and The Present Lover. After all, Ripatti had a strong 2007 with excellent releases as Uusitalo (propulsive tech-house) and Vladislav Delay (swirling fractal dub). By comparison, it appeared that Ripatti had exhausted the possibilities inherent to the Luomo project, and that every new release was doomed to intensify a sense of diminishing returns.
In retrospect, Paper Tigers sounds better than I remember: a stately, hypnotic collection featuring some of Ripatti's most refined house productions. But it exists almost entirely within the shadow of the first two Luomo albums, inviting the warmth of recognition rather than the flushes and chills of surprised fascination. Ripatti's work as Vladislav Delay hardly shocks these days either, but there's a sense with Luomo that the stakes are higher. Standing still is anathema to the Luomo aesthetic, the value of which resides not merely in the bewitching, spangly depths of Ripatti's arrangements, but also in the vague sense that, at his best, he forges new emotional as well as sonic territory, marshalling enormous amounts of studio wizardry and compositional effort to map out a new (effortless-sounding) textural and sensual approach to house music.
So it's with a sense of relief bordering on exhilaration that I come to the fourth Luomo album to discover a substantial rewiring of this particular aesthetic. While retaining the voluptuous shimmer characteristic of all Ripatti's work as Luomo, this album distances itself from the stutters and glitches he previously used to imply conflict and self-contradiction (puncturing house's habitual self-assurance). Instead, Convivial parades an immaculately structured, insectile busyness: clean and clearly etched, each sound placed with infinite care and burnished to a hyperreal sheen. If Vocalcity was murky and enveloping and The Present Lover gaseous and giddy, then Convivial is more like the rush of pure oxygen, offering a sound that is so sharp and so vivid it sears as much as it energizes.
It's also Ripatti's most unabashed foray into "pop" territory. Where previously the producer mostly oscillated between simple refrains and rigorously fractured vocal cut-ups (occasionally leaving his anonymous divas to wander in a confusing hall of mirrors), Convivial ushers in an array of guest vocalists whose contributions resemble (to a greater or lesser extent) "proper songs," filled with the coherent emotional arcs of complete verses and choruses.
"Love You All", a brooding gothic electro-ballad somewhere between the first Junior Boys album and Depeche Mode's Violator, forms a far outpost into this unfamiliar territory, its stuttering groove, morose strings, and eerie arpeggios creating a dense, almost claustrophobic topographic framework for Sascha Ring (Apparat)'s languid-but-tense verses and overblown falsetto choruses. It's a world away from the open-ended, near-formless echo-chambers of Vocalcity, or even the expansive curving surfaces of The Present Lover; compared to those albums, its exacting subordination of sonics to songfulness seems almost totalitarian.
But it's precisely this sense of discipline that makes "Love You All" (together with Convivial's other highlights) so marvelous: The pressure that these full-blown song structures exert upon Ripatti's sonic largess creates an unbearable sense of momentum that makes the best tracks here almost explosive with a joyful sense of possibility. You can almost hear the delight with which Ripatti puzzles out how to imbue the transitions from verses to choruses on "Love You All" with the kind of anthemic surge that pop masters take for granted. And it is from within this process of symbiotic adaptation-- the careful entwining of the producer's trembling sounds along the snaking contours of songcraft-- that the hoped-for sense of emotional breakthrough emerges.
The (relatively) weaker moments on Convivial are those which could most easily be mistaken for a reiteration the sound of the previous Luomo albums: On the understated chug of "If I Can't", (Scissor Sister) Jake Shears' bittersweet multi-tracked sighs mirror a little too closely the conflicted, stuttering divas of old, a resemblance Ripatti underlines by providing some of his most archetypal bruised, woozy synth chords. But even here, there's a sense of economy and structure that lifts the song above its immediate forbears, with every synth quiver and scraping dub echo carefully sustaining the ambiguous development of Shears' performance.
But while it's pleasing to see Ripatti further hone his familiar sound, I can't help but prefer the alchemy of the new: The best moments on Convivial transpose that unmistakable air of aching longing onto a broader, less predictable sonic palette. "Gets Along Fine" might ride a familiar wistful bass riff, but the core of its appeal resides in the astonishing combination of bleeping synthesizer and pseudo-African percussion in its chorus, which makes it simultaneously the most aggressive and purely joyous Luomo production to date, the muscular assault of its universalist affection like an embrace so fierce it crushes. The marvel, and perhaps the necessity of the Luomo project, is bound up in the shock of physical intimacy; pleasurable, overwhelming, and at times a little scary. "Am I really feeling this?" "Is it you who is making me feel this way?" Yes, and yes.
— Tim Finney, November 5, 2008