[18 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If you ask an average North American to name a popular Finnish band, you’ll probably get a blank stare in return. The odd music hipster might name-check microhouse genius Luomo, but the only people on this continent who are likely to have any knowledge of Finnish music are metal fans. After all, Finland is one of the world’s major exporters of metal music, especially that of the melodic variety, including such massively popular acts (in Europe, anyway) as Nightwish, Sonata Arctica, and Stratovarius, not to mention hard rockers HIM and the Rasmus. And, of course, we cannot forget the inexplicably popular GWAR rip-off Lordi, who rose to fame upon winning the Eurovision song contest, of all things. For all the operatic divas singing power metal, the preening goth dudes, and costumed goofballs singing “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, the rest of the world is completely oblivious to what appears to be a rather healthy mainstream Finnish pop scene, and it’s becoming apparent that we’re missing out on plenty of good music in the process.
While the ubiquitous American and UK pop stars and the homegrown metal acts dominate the charts, Finland’s more middle-of-the-road acts hold their own quite well, evidenced by the post-punk pop of Magenta Skycode, the Muse-inspired Passionworks, charming popsters the Crash, and the accessible prog rock of Von Hertzen Brothers. That said, if there’s one Finnish band that could connect with North American audiences, if given half the chance, it would be the oddly named, enormously talented Lemonator. With five studio albums and a best-of compilation already behind them, the power pop quartet’s refined skill shows on its latest effort, At the Presence of Great Beauty, an album that effortlessly merges modern pop rock with a classic ‘60s pop aesthetic.
The hooks on the album are the kind of contagious melodies that would be blown up to bombastic proportions by bands and producers preoccupied with putting out the next stadium anthem, but the restraint shown by Lemonator is remarkable, the big, swooning choruses remaining grounded throughout, giving the music an air of modest sincerity. “Will I Ever Find Out” is a good example. Built around a stabbing piano riff reminiscent of Three Dog Night’s “One” and a loping orch pop/hard rock backdrop, it could easily pass for an Oasis tune, were it not for the band’s wise reluctance to turn on the musical waterworks full blast. The end result is a charmer of a song, sold well by gentle-voiced singer Lasse Kurki, one that knows it doesn’t have to sound huge to pack an emotional punch.
The beautifully morose “Love Disappear” is the kind of downbeat song that will draw comparisons to Elliot Smith, while the slightly more buoyant “Guardian Maria (The Good in Loneliness)” is not unlike Death Cab for Cutie, Kurki’s polite vocal phrasing bearing a strong resemblance to that of Ben Gibbard. The gentle acoustic ballad “Neverfall” has an endearing sweetness to it, enhanced by harmony vocals and an underscoring of E-bowed guitar notes. “A Lonesome Dream”, meanwhile, is accessible power pop in the tradition of Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, and the Posies (in fact, Jon Auer sings on two tracks here), threatening to lose itself in a sea of sweeping guitars, but is reeled back in by the stately, string-accompanied chorus. The gorgeous waltz “Not Like the Rest” continues in a similar Alex Chilton-inspired direction, the band adding a subtle yet effective hint of Wilco’s early rootsy sound.
The second half of At the Presence of Great Beauty takes a turn toward the darker, starting with “Not Like the Rest”, and continuing with the aggressive riffs of “Heart Burns” and the theatrical “New Morning Light”, which effectively underlays a murky, Pulp-like quality beneath the sumptuous melodies, giving it an epic quality over its five-minute duration, while the impassioned “I’m Mad (For You)” offers us a welcome, albeit brief, reprieve from the misery. Only the closing track “The Perfect Couple” stumbles, as Kurki’s sweet sentiment gets a little too syrupy for comfort, but aside from that moment at the end, the album is sumptuous, expertly crafted, highly accessible music that caters to both the indie yuppie set, the younger, O.C. soundtrack crowd, and generally anyone who is a sucker for smart pop hooks. Someone find this band an American distributor as soon as possible…