Various Artists: Meet the Scene: An Introduction to Finnish Underground Guitar Pop
So, you know anything about Finland? Personally, the extent of my knowledge of all things Finnish is limited to lots of hockey players (including the heroic Saku Koivu), a couple of soccer players (named Litmanen and Jaaskelainen), a pretty darn good Formula One driver (Mikka Hakkinen), and a pretty darn bad movie director (Renny Harlin). I know they have a blue-and-white flag, the Finnish name for Finland is "Suomi", their language is extremely difficult to learn (see "Suomi"), the capital city is Helsinki; Teemu, Antii, and Jari are common male names, they have a hockey team called Jokerit (I don't get it, either) . . . that's pretty much it. Oh, and Michael Palin once sang a cute little song about Finland ("You're so sadly neglected / And often ignored / A poor second to Belgium / When going abroad").
But what about music from Finland? Norway's last contribution to global pop culture was a-ha sixteen years ago, while Sweden keeps churning out the international sensations, with those lovable Hives being the latest export to create a major international ruckus. But poor Finland? Nothing. Or so it seems. Thanks to an enterprising little label out of the city of Turku called Rhythm Barrel, the rest of the world can find out what kind of music the kids are playing over there. The wonderfully, wordily-titled Meet the Scene: An Introduction to Finnish Underground Guitar Pop shows the people of Finland have much, much more to give us than saunas and Cutthroat Island. There is some very good English-language music coming out of that country, not to mention some absolutely great band names: Harry Hunks, Flannelmouth, Cartoon Tree, Cheerleaders United, Big White Monkees, Hundred Million Martians (take that, 10,000 Maniacs!), and my personal fave, Ben's Diapers (what imagery . . .). Meet the Scene . . . also has excellent liner notes, written by Mikko Lappalainen, with detailed backgrounds given for each band (which can also be found at Rhyhm Barrel's web site).
All 18 tracks on this hour-long CD are highly enjoyable, ranging in styles from American emo, Belle & Sebastian acoustic stuff, Britpop, and bubblegum. The Sugarrush ("Nina Lives Andreas") opens the album with a cheerful powerpop tune that contains a shimmering chorus, while Kevin ("Motorways") takes its style from mid-Sixties British Invasion rock. Bridget ("Needless") combines country, bowlie folk, tinkly keyboards, and bizarrely-accented English. Harry Hunks ("With Summer Wine") sounds like an electrified Nick Drake. Sister Flo ("Runboyrun") sounds like acoustic Nick Drake. Homespun ("Partycrash") closely resembles Dinosaur Jr., right down to the vocals that sound lost in the mix, amidst loud guitars. Ultrasport ("You Are Evil") have the Belle & Sebastian thing going in a major way, while the wonderful Elliot Scale ("Innerspace") effectively combines guitars and Moog synthesizers the same way Matthew Sweet does. The extremely bizarre Big White Monkees ("Theme Song") provide a novelty song, with very strange lyrics in broken English, and some astonishingly awful attempts at American accents (what's not to like about that?). Hundred Million Martians ("Excitement of Possibility"), Cheerleaders United ("Guiding Star"), Since November ("Seven"), and the raucous Mental Market ("Shameless and Shallow") all contribute excellent rock songs. Spokane (no, not the American band of the same name) bring things to a close on the terrific, moody instrumental "Fucked Up in Glasgow".
The best tracks? Well, the band Puny shows, on their track "New Day", they're capable of expertly pulling off the combination of loud guitar, melodies, and hooks that bands like Guided By Voices, Weezer, and, more recently, the Vines are all capable of. With all the attention Scandinavian bands like the Hives and Soundtrack of Our Lives are receiving, it makes you wonder why Puny aren't sharing the hype. Conversely, Flannelmouth sound very British. Their song "Last Exit" combines vocals sounding like a cross between Morrisey and Marc Almond with a hook-laden, disco-influenced accompaniment lifted straight off Pulp's His 'N' Hers album. Cartoon Tree's "Please Let Me Be the One" is a great pop song, like something GBV's Robert Pollard would write, minus the cryptic lyrics. My favorite track, though, is that band with the cool name, Ben's Diapers. "Josephine Geraldine" is the type of twangy, Rickenbacker-styled, 1960s pop song that has you singing along by the second chorus. Just straightforward pop music with a magical hook.
My only small complaint with the album is the lack of female singers. Where are the ladies? It's a very minor quibble, but it makes you wonder how male-dominated the scene in Finland might be. Still, you've got to love nifty small albums like this that come along in their innocuous little way to brighten your day. Meet the Scene . . ., at first glance, comes off as a curiosity, a potential Outsider Music breakthrough that the Langley Schools Music Project was, but when you hear the first 30 seconds of that Sugarrush song, you realize that this isn't a group of bands being kooky in their own Laplandian way. The bands on this CD know how to rock, as simple as that. Even if it's sung in broken English and comes from the last place you'd think of, as long as it's great, that's all that matters, and this album has it, in spades.