Ascetic psychedelic Finns deliver second beautiful record, this time with a wider and more vivid palette to draw from.
And how, you may ask, did we all come to be paying attention to a semi-reclusive bunch of ascetic born-again Christians, making music “from the deepest Finnish forests", as their own press release says? After 2005’s Yhä Hämärää suddenly started gathering press momentum here in the English-speaking world, I suppose it’s not too surprising that we’d be waiting for the follow up – until you actually hear that album. It’s not that Yhä Hämärää is lacking in quality so much as it is pointedly and determinedly far, far away from music as most people listen to it. A bewitching fog of a record, sung entirely in a language that practically no-one likely to be reading this review understands, Paavoharju’s opening shot across the bow of both indie rock and freak folk (or whatever you want to call it) didn’t lack for novelty value. Thankfully it also boasted such a rich sense of atmosphere and presence, and such a strange blend of sonic/genre signifiers (right down to the quasi-reggae of the closing song) that once the novelty drew you in there was enough substance and wonder to make you want to stay.
But even as Yhä Hämärää conjured up the kind of self-sufficient interior world that all good psychedelic music gets to one way or another, it also felt a bit too insular or private at times, not to mention inapproachable. Even after dozens of listens, I couldn’t hum you any of it… which isn’t necessarily a criticism. This wasn’t a bunch of songs; it was a way of seeing the world for 38 minutes. Laulu Laakson Kukista somehow manages to bridge the gap between that kind of experience and what you might want to actually call songs in the conventional sense, without ever sounding like anyone besides Paavoharju.
Which means, naturally, after starting the album with a four-minute piece most bands would have chopped down to one and used as an intro, they launch into “Kevätrumpu”, where suddenly they turn into the world most mellow, lo-fi dance pop outfit, blissed out female vocals echoing over a soft keyboard throb and Bollywood-esque rhythmic spangles. The lovely “Tuoksu Tarttuu Meihin” follows, wherein a graceful piano melody gradually vanishes behind a waterfall of static. They lodge the almost naively anthemic “Uskallen” (a perversely but genuinely stirring moment) between two of the more abstract/haunted house moments of the record, and the band ends things with “Sumuvirsi”/”Untitled”, two brief tracks of almost pure roomsound ambience.
If you’ve never heard Paavoharju, the mixture of the open and obtuse (all deftly handled and sonically ravishing) can be startling. If you’re a fan of Yhä Hämärää it still is, but for different reasons. The first time I heard “Kevätrumpu” it was a nasty shock. I worried that such a song might throw the rest of the album off-kilter, that this band could only work their magic over sustained album-lengths or not at all. It’s not about ‘selling out’ or anything so silly, but a worry that, if the band was going to ditch one of the things that made their debut so special, they might not have anything to replace it with. But naturally enough, after a few listens, things make more sense, and “Kevätrumpu” fades back into the rest of the album as it should. It does mean that Laulu Laakson Kukista has actual highlights, but really there are only four or five tracks here that stand out as ‘songs', still well below the average for a twelve-track record. As the album fades back into the ether near the end, you’re still left with an appreciation for how well this band can weave together disparate elements (within as well as between songs) to make one loveably patchwork whole. They may now occasional deal in more vivid or at least more primary colours, but the appeal of Paavoharju is still largely in how they bring the whole together.
That whole is not just more varied and at times more ingratiating before, it’s less gloomy. The first album’s title translates as “Continually Dark”, whereas Laulu Laakson Kukista mean “A Song About the Flowers of the Valley”, and the change is palpable (if possibly false – most of us still won’t know what they’re actually singing about). Not only are there more overt melodies here, they’re much sweeter, and at times would verge on twee if not for the customary coating of static, noises, interruptions (“Italialaisella Laivalla” might be unbearable if not for the brief, gently self-mocking interlude of fake calliope music) and general debris. Throughout the album babies gurgle, birds call, wind blows. People make music. It’s both less and more strange than it maybe should be, but just because Paavoharju now boast a couple of tracks you could conceivably peel off from the whole for a mixtape doesn’t mean their grip on their strange and beautiful muse has gotten any weaker. Laulu Laakson Kukista is an almost perfect example of a band moving forward without forgetting what it was that made them loveable in the first place, of how to make music with a wider appeal without sacrificing the reason people were paying attention in the first place.