When you think of Finland, you might think of a cold country that is Nordic and very pretty to some people. If you are a fan of British humor, the name might conjure up Monty Python's homage to the country. While Sweden is home to great rock bands, Finland also has its share. One such group is a surf guitar band called Laika & the Cosmonauts. The group's first album in more than six years is par for the music course, with occasional dips and drops in musicianship. The album kicks off with "N.Y. '79", a tune that begins with a New Year's Eve countdown perhaps. Fans of surf guitar might find themselves recalling Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, minus the Costello and the Attractions-era piano noodling. It seems a bit off in spots and down in terms of intensity, but the alt-rock angle works perfectly here.
The group -- consisting of guitarist Mikko Lankinen, drummer Janne Haavisto, bassist Tom Nyman, and organist/guitarist Matti Pitskini -- is extremely tight, yet experimental in spots. "The Key Role" has more of an eerie, quasi-Latin rhythm to it, with the guitars trying to build a false sense of intensity. Pitskini sets the balls rolling but often the groove comes and goes before venturing into a thick slab of '70s organ with a modern day hip-hop backbeat. When the group goes for a jazzy feeling, though, it leaves a bland and often stale taste on one's sonic palette. The wah-wah, Richie Sambora effects on "Haroosh" are something even Steely Dan would probably consider too laid back! It does have its moments, but they are few and fleeting.
While the group uses surf-guitar techniques, the idea of Jeff Beck paying tribute to them like he did with Gene Vincent's backing band is absurd. Laika & the Cosmonauts tend to downplay the surf guitar in favor of a lush, richer framework with surf guitars. The moody and Isaak-like "Crosstown Canyon" is spooky and refreshing, with the guitars doing most of the work in a Floydian, large-scale way. Possibly the worst tune of the dozen is a horrid "Nocturne of the Neon Night" -- an aimless and insipid piece of work that belonged on a seventies television action series, possibly with a chase down dark alleys. They cannot save this song regardless of their attempts, making it all the more arduous on the ears. Thankfully, "Rikki on the Loose" atones for this, an upbeat and toe-tapping anthemic instrumental that is equal parts the Cure and Springsteen.
The second side opens with a tune that never quite hits any genre. "Liposuction" begins with a sound that recalls the Band but evolves into something harder and cinematic and then touches the outskirts of gospel/Southern soul. Interesting to say the least. By this time the band has discovered a comfortable niche they immerse themselves in, with "Apt. 23B" a perfect example of a Spaghetti Western tune from, er, Finland. But too often the group takes the easy way out, with "Soulmate" bringing to mind a love scene with Inspector Clouseau, if one can connote such an image. And the song seems to never end, ambling along at a snail's pace.
Laika & the Cosmonauts begin the homestretch of the record with a slightly groovy "Disco-Plank", a tune that shows promise but sags after the introduction, resorting more to a boring jazz-meets-rock jam instrumental. And from there it sounds as if the whole album is coming apart at the seams, with "Meneito Paraiso" another organ-oriented somber plunge into surf rock. The record has its moments, but often these cosmonauts will have you lost in space.