I suppose there is a certain ethos attached to the “best of” review; while the product is invariably marketed towards an audience unfamiliar—at least relatively—to the relevant artist’s oeuvre, the reviewer is expected to possess a discerning and comprehensive familiarity to the compilation’s subject. Retrospectives seem to fall into two categories: introductions to larger catalogs, or concise cullings of spotty, inconsistent careers meant to render fans’ further delving unnecessary. So it’s fair to expect critics to have an intimate knowledge of an artist—if only just too differentiate between the two categories.
I should probably confess that I had never heard of 22-Pistepirkko a month ago, so, following my own logic (incidentally, self-deprecatory disclaimers are already enough of a faux-pas), I really have no business reviewing The Nature of 22-Pistepirkko: 1985 - 2002, a retrospective highlighting the veteran Finnish trio’s expansive and eclectic career. But, as it turns out, this particular “best of” is particularly ill-suited for critics, anyway. Released two years ago, it has now been re-pressed in anticipation of the band’s forthcoming album (their tenth, overall), in hopes of priming European and American audiences for the release. Or at least convince them that 22-Pistepirkko ever mattered.
The attempt is partially successful. With its two discs, Nature lacks the conciseness to adeptly convert an audience that never had the attention span for 22-Pistepirkko in the first place. Since the early ‘80s, the trio (comprised of brothers PK and Asko Keranen and Espe Haverinen) have been dabbling in their own brand of blues-inflected roots rock, which—even as their approach has simulateneously become more polished and adventurous—has rarely wandered far from its beginnings. Compiling material spanning from their 1987 English language debut Kings of Hong Kong to the electro-sheen of 2001’s Rally of Love, The Nature of 22-Pistepirkko may fail as a distillation, but it triumphs as an introduction. And even at 103 minutes, it at least convinced me to do my homework; for the patient listener, Nature is an excellent primer to the trio’s catalog.
The perceived naïveté so prevalent in Northern European pop (which is often so appealing to American audiences) is immediately apparent on Nature. Its first disc highlights the first half of the trio’s English language career, offering a more organic counterpart to disc two’s electronica-tinged experimentations. In “Hongkong King,” Boredoms-esque verses with trashcan percussion and psych-droned vocal harmonies seamlessly segue into cartoonishly affable choruses. Later, “Frankenstein”—with its diesel-driven axe pumps and ghostly organ interjections—seems to invoke influences ranging from George Thorogood to Suicide.
Even as their studio prowess matured and their songwriting stagnated (but never lost steam), 22-Pistepirkko’s greatest strength always lied in vocalist PK Keranen’s childlike vocals (often evoking a devolved Ian Brown or Richard Ashcroft), and this playful quality is used to best advantage in songs like “Don’t Play Cello” and “Birdy”. In the latter cut, a whimsical, vaudevillian piano stomp and some whimsical horn flourishes create a perfect backdrop for Keranen’s voice as he repeats “I know it don’t really matter” in the song’s chorus.
The second disc begins with “I Never Said”, a housey, looping electro-romp originally found on 1996’s remix compilation Zipcode. With its distortion-laden, post-industrial framework, it employs many of the tricks Primal Scream would tap five years later on XTRMNTR. On “Onion Soup”, 22-Pistepirkko offers the type of anthemic, at-once-charging-and-harmonic chorus so typical of their English contemporaries from the time. Eventually, the disc finally concludes with “Let the Romeo Weep”, recorded live in 2002 especially for the compilation. While initially a sludging, seemingly uninspired dirge, its tumultuous, quickly accumulating percussion and acid-fused organ slams capture the Finnish trio at their finest and most cacophonous.
Despite a failure at conciseness, The Nature of 22-Pistepirkko has an odd singularity throughout its two disc span. Even as they increasingly depended on electronic embellishments and studio wizardry, 22-Pistepirkko hardly altered their rootsy, retro-worshipping approach to songwriting. At their wisest and most weather-worn, they seemed as they must have in 1986: A Scandinavian anomaly, intent on being counted as contemporaries among their English and American heroes, but stuck halfway between awe and emulation as they slowly stumbled towards maturity.