Laulu Laakson Kukista
For any band with the willingness or capability to write actual tunes, critics and fans are apt to see anything else-- interludes, instrumentals, experiments-- as a digression. I understand and partially accept that this is what you are choosing to do when you are not singing me a song. These are the aural equivalents of John Steinbeck's turtle, often treated with the indifference and puzzlement afforded the itinerant reptile in your average high school book report; folks were known to edit off the ambient bits of even Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album renowned for its meld of song and abstraction. Finnish collective Paavoharju are obstinate in their attempts to buck this trend, scattering Europop, pastel electronics, and woolen drones like a tossed deck of Bicycle playing cards. The greatest achievement of Paavoharju's Laulu Laakson Kukista, though, is not its dexterous balance of song and sound but the way it invests you as heavily in field recordings, dub workouts, and quasi-classical think pieces as in the band's foreign-language hookmaking.
Ostensibly a "songs" album, Laulu only gradually reveals their scarcity: count six using the standard "Could I maybe put this on a mixtape for my coworkers if, in fact, my coworkers were into entropic Nordic dance-pop?" benchmark. In place of half of a classic pop album, Laulu doesn't redefine out-music so much as find clever and inventive ways to incorporate it. Like its predecessor-- Paavoharju's 2005 debut Yhä Hämärää-- Laulu opens with "Pimeänkarkelo", a track that ceases to be an "intro" around the two minute mark and carries on for twice that anyway, ultimately serving as a palate cleanser for the surprisingly tart headrush of "Kevätrumpu". Kinetic synths and lovingly cheesed-out drums bleat and whir like dancin' music at a 1992 rollerblade disco. A stressed, sexed female voice coos and circles and punches like she's got Madonna's biceps but not those under-eye bags. And then...variations on a plinky piano melody in the form of "Tuoksu Tarttuu Meihin", which mulls and ponders amid a static curtain. When the band later remembers the melody on the album's two shortest tracks they feel less like interludes and more like rounding back to an earlier conversation after a thorough and fulfilling detour.
Downtempo dub. Song. Weird pastel electronica. Song. Laulu is structured much like Yhä Hämärää and the line between should be drawn using confidence, or perhaps perseverance. Mulish is too ugly a word for Laulu, whose compositions are stubbornly given room to flower and expand but are always appropriately reined; instead let's say that Paavoharju have a well-developed internal clock, or are otherwise familiar with "The Ugly Duckling". "Kirkonväki" outgrows its watery piano and malfunctioning click-track to blossom into a goth-rock prom, replete with organs in waltz-time stumble. "Uskallan" features a male lead so clear-throated and dramatic that the song sounds like one of the early 90s Latin-American hits that increasingly populate Chicago's jukeboxes. "Sumuvirsi", a rhythm-less, female-led hymn whose second-most prominent sound is a cackling raven, hues closest to the psych-folk traditional to Fonal's roster, but even it seems more theatrical and dramatic, like Paavoharju have been taking their cues both from Eleanoora Rosenholm and high-school drama productions.
The tiny honking synths that augment the rusty guitars of "Tyttö Tanssii" suggest a more literal reading of the Bicycle metaphor from above: a hill of two-wheelers, disheveled rubber, tassels, and bells. Laulu connotes this youth, motion, and playfulness in various states of repair and construction, and it does so by alternating well-formed, multi-faced pop songs with abstract head-scratchers, each component as warmly evocative and strangely necessary as the last.
-Andrew Gaerig, June 11, 2008