Combined Rating: 80%
Fonal's secret weapon, Merja Kokkonen is an oddity of the best kind. Mostly because she's not really that odd, or rather the component parts of her music aren't that odd, but they're just slapped together in really odd ways. Take opener "Kutsukaa Sydãntã": after a hilarious dark piano chord's sustain is aborted when fingers leave the keys a fraction of a second before the next chord -- creating a hollow moment of snark -- the song combines a Tony Banks-like synth line (but, like the low part that's usually embedded in the back of the mix that just gives color), some buzzing guitar notes, and some cyclic riffs on the higher registers of the piano. The resonance from the low piano chords creates tense music that plays on fractured, unfinished ideas. Halfway through a kick beats a few times; you'll think the first time through that the song is going to pick up and move but after three or four hits it's just gone. I'll call this music abysmal, but I mean it like "abyssmal." Of course, this isn't just Scott Walker.
The organ on "Syndãnten Ahmija" gives a better clue to Kokkonen's roots; the psychedelic/space riff is hard to ignore, though here the cyclic pace normally employed by bands like Pink Floyd to add an air of edge and mystery to their early music is here the lighter distraction from a series of fragmented saxophone blurbles, high pitched wines, and nervous piano. "Pysãhtyneet Planeetat" employs some synthetic whistling over a grungy bass line; the buzzing abstractions that define to outer range of the audio spectrum in Islaja's music remain at the fringes through most of the track as Kokkonen sings in close with the bass. A violin plays a lovely decayed melody that joins in duet with Kokkonen's increasingly filtered voice. "Pete P" starts relatively normal in contrast, Kokkonen singing in her enveloping voice over picked guitar and a nice little beat that sounds half '60s and half Prefuse 73. But what's really cool is that the percussive instruments sort of flit in and out. The song retains its momentum thanks to a walking bass line but the drums are implied; it's hard to remember when they'll come in or leave again, and so you always sort of hear them in your head. It's a nauseating effect.
Kokkonen's voice is front and center in this music (people compare her to Nico and Bjork but I'd say that what the whole package sounds like is somewhere closer to Tim Buckley mixed with the Charalambides); she's got a gorgeous ability to dart around these messy arrangements with technically fascinating melodies and harmonies. She's Finnish, so are her lyrics, and of course critics have jumped on the opportunity to drag out the old chestnut about being able to understand her emotion even as you can't understand her words. Whatever: these are essentially pop songs run through a cheese grater. Consider "Muusimaa," where the track opens like a field recording of a band warming up before Kokkonen really starts to put her Starsailor (1970) elocution lessons to good use. "Laulu Jo Menneestã," where harmonies of Kokkonens establish her increasing gift for melody (something somewhat lacking on her two previous releases). The song is basically sign waves, ebow distortion, and pianos, but Kokkonen flits over top in anguish (and, seriously, doesn't it sound hard to flit in anguish?).
I think "Varojokuvastin" will be the pundit's pick; it opens with a clean guitar. Kokkonen's strongest melody is complemented with male vocals, piano twinkles, distorted signals, and sampled vocals. It's the most obviously accessible track here. "Muukalais-silmã" is my pick, though. It starts with what I think are some Finnish TV samples and a droning violin/guitar duet with some wild flute buried deep in the mix. Maybe some accordion too? Kokkonen is slow and deliberate through most of the track; however, as cacophonous percussive sounds slowly enter at the fringes they start to form a kind of beat. It's an effect that could only be achieved on an album where every other moment where you thought this was going to happen didn't, and so on this penultimate track the random noise actually does coalesce into something that propels the song forward.for about a minute, maybe. It's a brilliant surprise, though. Closer "Suru ei" makes the always unfortunate mistake of fading out into five minutes of field recordings but I don't fault Con Art (1998) for it so I guess I can't fault Ulual YYY.
Psyche-driven or not, these are pop songs. They end up like objects with the consistency of cotton balls, 'cept somebody has taken a pair of tweezers and removed bits so that any sense of popness is subverted by the missing links and clues to other sounds we never hear and in one simply majestic moment listening to stray noises slowly build into a mess of forward-moving percussion. Islaja as a concept is all about free association; your own preconceptions draw you into the music -- this sad, sad music -- and you're stuck, searching for that one moment of sunlight to peek through. All Kokkonen is doing is playing you off against yourself.
May 5, 2007
Since debuting in 2004 with Meritie, Merja Kokkonen, aka Islaja, has refined and restitched her fractured craft. Kokkonen plays in Avarus, Kemialliset Ystävät, and Hertta Lussu Assa (with Lau Nau and Kuupuu), but Islaja remains a particularly magic space where she weaves her most personal and affecting material. On album three, Ulual Yyy, she manages to introduce a more refined approach, offering a deeper and denser atmosphere, without sacrificing the free flow or, importantly, the mystery.
Case in point: Ulual Yyy's been out since April, and I listen to it regularly, but somehow until now I haven't been able to affix any words: it's kind of like decoding a secret language. These nine songs present such a personal, eccentric vision, it feels strange offering a reaction in straight-and-narrow paragraphs. As with certain artists, it seems like the more fitting way to stumble upon Islaja would be scrolling past her chillingly ecstatic vocals on an AM dial or hearing those shuffling dub drums, thin guitars, and creaky strings drifting out from some shack deep in the woods.
If you haven't heard Islaja yet, don't expect another moody, post-Golden Apples female folky. As Dominique Leone pointed out in his 2005 review of Palaa Aurinkoon, Kokkonen has "more in common with an abstract expressionist painter than a folk musician, using her palette to fill in the details of subconscious experience." The description has always struck me as the dead-on way to approach Islaja's surrealist landscape: Rip up your maps, toss the fragments in the air, and see where they land. The logic isn't always clear-- especially because she sings in Finnish and we non-Finnish speakers can't use lyrics as guides-- but the songs, no matter how skeletal or warped, congeal into intimate, sharp-focused epiphanies/moments.
From the opening, woozy piano steps of "Kutsukaa Sydäntä" through the catchy Gang Gang Dancing of the excellent "Pete P" (sax skronk, feedback clouds, Krokkonen in diva mode) and the psychedelic Twisted Village jazzing of "Laulu Jo Menneestä", Ulual Yyy is her strongest work to date. The uncoiling, Shadow Ring-style "Muusimaa" tumbles over itself, dropping percussion, strings, and onto a patchwork quilt. The spare, sawing, "Pysähtyneet Planeetat" feels like a forest lament filtered with a pitch shifter that distorts the undertow. "Varjokuvastin", which also includes vocals by Jukka Raisanen, finds Kokkonen splitting into multiple personalities over spare, but busy bass and organ. She spins delicate vocals over armies of toy instruments.
The technique of pairing slightly askew doubled vocals makes it sounds like she's singing, breathlessly, to herself between two cans connected with string (and tiny bits of glitter). A rather prominent Don Henley sax can verge on cheese, but cast against cascading pitches, howls, creepy organs and her ecstatic voice(s), it's ripped enough from a usual context to render it somehow mystical and enchanting. Raisanen, also of Sala-Arhimo, is the one blowing. He also adds bass, additional vocals, and straight-up "new age synth." It's amazing how those horns transform Kokkonen from wood sprite to noir vocalist in a smoky speakeasy-- Yoko Ono singing to Peter Jefferies' Last Great Challenge in a Dull World (when is someone going to reissue that, by the way?).
You hate to make your own echoes, but as I mentioned in Forkcast a few months ago, Ulual Yyy's cover includes a photo of Krokonnen, strands of her hair covering parts of her face. One curl in particular casts a shadow, making her mouth appear larger than it is. It's a surreal, seemingly unintentional touch. The way the light's shining, it also seems to be in the middle of a particular strong sunset-- the bright moment before the moon. Across these forty-one minutes, shades and shadows play similar tricks on our ears, expanding and warping the instruments we run into on a daily basis. Islaja really does have a knack for emptying the world of familiar sounds and structures, taking us on a beautiful trek through her own scattered, darkening landscape.
-Brandon Stosuy, September 19, 2007