Fonal Records 2005
by Dominique Leone
Admirably insular sophomore LP from the Finnish folkie.
Finland's Islaja plays music for staring, so long as you don't expect your visions to coalesce into anything recognizable or "pretty" in the traditional sense. Her acoustic-based music soundtracks a hangover, or the scary part of a mushroom binge-- which is different than saying it sounds good when you're hung over or strung out. Rather, her kind of folk music is closer to real life than I want to be in the darkest moments, only intermittently letting the light peek through. Through blurry layers of harmonium, multi-tracked (though not always harmonized) vocals, piano, acoustic guitar, wooden blocks of percussion and bells, she's got more in common with an abstract expressionist painter than a folk musician, using her palette to fill in the details of subconscious experience. Somehow, this doesn't end up sounding overwrought or pretentious. It's a "naive" sound, even when I wonder how hard it is to be naive when you're tracking six instruments and polyphonic vocals on every song. Nevertheless, she's kindred to Charalambides, Syd Barrett, and many of her Fonal label mates in this regard: strangely accomplished, but alien and evocative of nothing in particular.
Her debut (last year's Meritie) showed promise, but I found it lacking in melody-- which is to say, in exchange for abstraction I usually crave a firm base in reality, obscured or otherwise. Islaja's music is tough to analyze because it's admirably insular. Where, say, Animal Collective draw upon Brazilian music or psychedelic folk, Islaja is only really "folk" by association. Her instrumentation and preferred acoustic ambience remind me of someone's traditional music, even if I don't know whose it would be. She continues along these lines onPalaa Aurinkoon (roughly translated to "burn sun" and recorded in Glasgow, Scotland of all places), though does sometimes add a bit more rhythmic pulse to her pieces.
"Rukki" is an interesting song using Islaja's voice-- a distant, repeated two-note figure, and "ai-oh, ah" whispers-- as the base over which buzzing synth (?) noise and minor-chord strummed guitar flesh out atmospheres like a visual artist might use flickering, subtly morphing figures around the edge of a central, fuzzy image. Some listeners might want to know what the song is about, but given its elements, I think artist Frank Stella's creed of "what you see is what you see" applies. I could peer into these songs for days, but might very well come to the conclusion that it's my own psyche under the microscope rather than Islaja's music.
Songs like "Laivat Saapuu" and the title track offer what seem like more accessible inroads to the heart of her music, but mislead. The former begins with the toll of toy bells and the singer's high-pitched melody, reminiscent of none other than Devendra Banhart's first record of four-track songs. However, when the saxophones (!) enter with a plaintive drone, the song loses its forward momentum, settling like scum on a swampy lagoon. Her vocals form "la-la" patterns that fall under the mini-clang, and before I realize what's happened, the whole song seems to have turned itself upside down. Things really don't settle until the closer "Rukous", which uses harmonium and recorders that sound like small train whistles to set up a simple, male-female vocal duet.
Regardless of the references I made earlier, Islaja doesn't really sound like anyone else. That works to her advantage for the most part, but if you want a more conventionally attractive ride, Palaa Aurinkoon may leave you feeling malnourished. Still, emotionally interesting musicians who don't immediately make me think of someone else are rare enough that I'm willing to follow along just on principle. In the best cases, abstraction illuminates something vital.
[...] Merja's voice acts as the perfect compliment to the sparse instrumentation, lending melodies that tug the listener along without getting lost in their minimalist approach.
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