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Architecture in Helsinki

(18 May 2006: Avalon — New York)

Cameron Bird, Architecture in Helsinki’s main vocalist, announced mid-concert that there was a contingent of high school seniors who had foregone their senior prom to come to the show. He then invited a couple on stage to dance together while the group played their first encore, the gorgeous and appropriate “Maybe You Can Owe Me”. He promised that John Hughes would make a movie about their night.

OK, so the group’s performance isn’t quite right for the big screen, but it’s pretty excellent nonetheless. Architecture in Helsinki—an eight-piece Australian chamber-pop group whose multi-instrumentalist members hop hyperactively between trombones, recorders, drums, keyboards and French horns—makes music for the ADD generation. If you’re looking for a band that focuses on thematic development, AiH is not for you. But, if you’re happy to hear fragments of melodies laid out like jewels, the group is endlessly fascinating.

Architecture in Helsinki
multiple songs: MySpace

The interest of those that crowded the sold out Avalon mostly fell into the latter category. Attendees included David Byrne and Little Stevie Van Zandt from E Street Band and The Sopranos fame, and though AiH is a fairly esoteric indie band, the audience’s members brought their dancing shoes. In fact, after only the second or third song, Bird commented that this was the most enthusiastic crowd the band had ever seen. A case of making nice with the audience, probably, but it did the trick—the prom kids went crazy.

Onstage, AiH doesn’t resemble a band so much as a chaotic (if choreographed) dance ensemble. It’s eight members were frequently joined by still more musicians, all bouncing around from instrument to instrument. A brass section—of up to two trombones, trumpet, and a French horn—crowded around microphones to the left of the stage, contributing new depth and texture to the band’s songs. And despite the many players, they were always perfectly in time, as on the middle section of “Cemetery”, where the song changes from light calypso to heavy power chords.

In person, Architecture in Helsinki subverts preconceptions about their music, offering new insight into their work: Bird, whose voice on record is a fragile, cracking tenor (justifying the ‘twee’ label the band gets saddled with), looks more pugilistic—like Archie from the comics—with a crazy, multi-colored trucker hat and boundless energy. What’s more, live, part-time singer and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Mildren’s voice reminded me of Josephine Olausson from Love Is All. As far as the music, AiH’s post-punk leanings came more to the fore.

Most of the material the band played was from their second album, 2005’s In Case We Die. Addictive hit “It’s 5!” came early, and other album highlights “Cemetery”, “Frenchy, I’m Faking”, and “Wishbone” peppered the set, periodically setting the crowd off. Two songs from their debut, Fingers Crossed—“Owls Go” and “Fumble”—were less recognized by the audience, though they remain among the band’s best. They saved two utter gems for the encores, “Maybe You Can Owe Me” and “Do the Whirlwind”, the perfect dance-till-you-drop finale to an energetic hour that went by way too quickly.

At one point, Mildren ran up to the balcony, let out a bag of confetti, and ran back down to the stage between verses. That breathless enthusiasm summed up the night: the band was all over the place, but, somehow, they always made it on time back to where they needed to be.


Dan Raper has been writing about music for PopMatters since 2005. Prior to that he did the same thing for his college newspaper and for his school newspaper before that. Of course he also writes fiction, though his only published work is entitled "Gamma-secretase exists on the plasma membrane as an intact complex that accepts substrates and effects intramembrane cleavage". He is currently studying medicine at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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