[16 July 2004]
While the name of the band conjures up images of the artistic-yet-functional, the classical with a nouveau twist, and the cosmopolitan with an old-world charm, Architecture in Helsinki are actually a bunch of amateurish pop experimentalists from Melbourne, Australia, whose aspirations are not as high as they might appear to be. Instead of some sort of culture-crossing sound sculptors, the band actually play it too safe, merely attempting to capture the same exact audience that was won over by If You’re Feeling Sinister in 1997. Unlike at the time of Belle and Sebastian’s breakthrough, however, dozens of bands currently reap the fields of the Beach Boys and Bacharach, with “ba ba ba’s” and baby coos, bubble sounds, and brass instruments; the possibility of more bland bossa nova should lead to cries of “Been there ” and “Boring!” What, then, sets the band apart from the rest of the pack?
Composed of eight people playing 14 songs in 37 minutes with 31 instruments, Architecture in Helsinki know how to build gloriously twee indie pop that still sounds cute and small, despite an overabundance of ingredients; likeminded bands (a big “ahem” to Sean O’Hagan) have often struggled with this ability for years. The best songs are melodic and catchy, but never simple; they move from point to point like a citywide bus tour in a foreign town (in Finland?), without backtracking or revisiting prior landmarks. The arrangements are complex, yet they remain spectacularly free from clutter. Even with all the instrumentation, bandleader/songwriter Cameron Bird and percussionist/producer James Cecil are able to enhance the songs with electronic flourishes and still give each multi-faceted track plenty of breathing room. In fact, knowing when (and when not) to fill the extra space is another of the band’s defining hallmarks, along with their communal band camp sensibility, a unique and lovely lead vocalist whose name is unclear, and unfortunately not least of all, a laziness that prevents them from fulfilling their evident potential. If every track were as fully constructed as the better ones here, Fingers Crossed would be a wonderful album instead of just a promising one; as it stands, the architects have lots of plans, but only a few of the completed buildings.
As a result, Fingers Crossed often feels like Potsdammer Platz in the mid-to-late ‘90s: under construction. “One Heavy February” kicks off the record with attention-grabbing synths and handclaps, but instead of evolving into something memorable and interesting, it whirs and spins around its main retro keyboard line like a lost Belle and Sebastian b-side. The lightly galloping “Souvenirs” is similarly afflicted; although a wispy female vocalist (one of three women credited on the album, but not the obvious lead) sings a pretty, standout melody as the music builds behind her, the piece still sounds like something Isobel Campbell has already done, without hinting at the awe-inspiring creations present later on the record. Other weak spots on the album include the rare moments when the wealth of instrumentation can be too reminiscent of a languid recital rehearsal, such as on the torpid “To and Fro” or the intro to the otherwise beautiful “It’s Almost a Trap”. Lastly, “City Calm Down” is an undeveloped number that is lost between two stronger tracks at the end of the album.
The stunners, however, make up for the filler. “Imaginary Ordinary” begins as a duet between clarinet and clicking/squeaking mechanical synth sounds, but eventually spotlights the most unusual voice of either Tara Shackell or Kellie Sutherland (the band’s video for the addictive pop song “Kindling” and the press release for the album contradict each other in reporting each member’s role within the band). Whoever-She-Is proves to be one of the band’s most alluring aspects, because the underdog character of her voice is so wonderfully different and well-suited to the variety of musical backdrops behind it; the band must agree, because Whoever-She-Is sings 75% of the album. “Spring 2008” brightly demonstrates Architecture in Helsinki’s remarkable ability to showcase a non-stop parade of instruments and voices as a linear fabric of sound, so that the individual players do not appear to be simply taking their turns; the publicity-oriented Bird often suggests the Avalanches’ Since I Left You as a major influence, and it shows. “The Owls Go” extraordinarily surpasses the other songs’ accomplishments by comprising so many different details and arresting moments that it takes a handful of album listens to realize they are all packed into the same three-and-a-half minute song, but not piled on top of one another. Also commendable for its use of space, the precious ballad “Where You’ve Been Hiding” occasionally features Whoever-She-Is as an echo, repeating single words to heighten dramatic effect.
Truth be told, the band have got an irrepressible embarrassment of riches that will undoubtedly continue to make the band’s name. But in order to aesthetically match the lofty aspirations of that name—Bird admits that it actually alludes to “finding wonder in something obscure”—Architecture in Helsinki need to consistently infuse their safe, Belle and Sebastian indie pop tendencies with the forward-thinking, constructive Avalanches influence that already guides their most skillfully crafted numbers. Regardless of how they proceed, they should keep Whoever-She-Is as a focal point.
P.S. In actuality, Whoever-She-Is is the remarkable Cameron Bird himself. Intrigued?