Fonal Records 2007
Islaja’s music is a dream, abstract and enchanted but grounded in the earthiness of a Finnish forest floor. Her real name is Merja Kokkonen; I don’t know what she’s singing about, but i’ve never heard anything so otherworldly.
Music: Best of 2007
Music: Best of 2007
Pitchfork review of the album
On her third full-length, this Finnish singer-songwriter conjures a surreal landscape that veers from hushed, spooky neo-folk to more abstract noisemaking.
Since debuting in 2004 with Meritie, Merja Kokkonen, aka Islaja, has refined and restitched her fractured craft. Kokkonen plays in Avarus, Kemialliset Ystävät, and Hertta Lussu Assa (with Lau Nau and Kuupuu), but Islaja remains a particularly magic space where she weaves her most personal and affecting material. On album three, Ulual Yyy, she manages to introduce a more refined approach, offering a deeper and denser atmosphere, without sacrificing the free flow or, importantly, the mystery.
Case in point: Ulual Yyy's been out since April, and I listen to it regularly, but somehow until now I haven't been able to affix any words: it's kind of like decoding a secret language. These nine songs present such a personal, eccentric vision, it feels strange offering a reaction in straight-and-narrow paragraphs. As with certain artists, it seems like the more fitting way to stumble upon Islaja would be scrolling past her chillingly ecstatic vocals on an AM dial or hearing those shuffling dub drums, thin guitars, and creaky strings drifting out from some shack deep in the woods.
If you haven't heard Islaja yet, don't expect another moody, post-Golden Apples female folky. As Dominique Leone pointed out in his 2005 review of Palaa Aurinkoon, Kokkonen has "more in common with an abstract expressionist painter than a folk musician, using her palette to fill in the details of subconscious experience." The description has always struck me as the dead-on way to approach Islaja's surrealist landscape: Rip up your maps, toss the fragments in the air, and see where they land. The logic isn't always clear-- especially because she sings in Finnish and we non-Finnish speakers can't use lyrics as guides-- but the songs, no matter how skeletal or warped, congeal into intimate, sharp-focused epiphanies/moments.
From the opening, woozy piano steps of "Kutsukaa Sydäntä" through the catchy Gang Gang Dancing of the excellent "Pete P" (sax skronk, feedback clouds, Krokkonen in diva mode) and the psychedelic Twisted Village jazzing of "Laulu Jo Menneestä", Ulual Yyy is her strongest work to date. The uncoiling, Shadow Ring-style "Muusimaa" tumbles over itself, dropping percussion, strings, and onto a patchwork quilt. The spare, sawing, "Pysähtyneet Planeetat" feels like a forest lament filtered with a pitch shifter that distorts the undertow. "Varjokuvastin", which also includes vocals by Jukka Raisanen, finds Kokkonen splitting into multiple personalities over spare, but busy bass and organ. She spins delicate vocals over armies of toy instruments.
The technique of pairing slightly askew doubled vocals makes it sounds like she's singing, breathlessly, to herself between two cans connected with string (and tiny bits of glitter). A rather prominent Don Henley sax can verge on cheese, but cast against cascading pitches, howls, creepy organs and her ecstatic voice(s), it's ripped enough from a usual context to render it somehow mystical and enchanting. Raisanen, also of Sala-Arhimo, is the one blowing. He also adds bass, additional vocals, and straight-up "new age synth." It's amazing how those horns transform Kokkonen from wood sprite to noir vocalist in a smoky speakeasy-- Yoko Ono singing to Peter Jefferies' Last Great Challenge in a Dull World (when is someone going to reissue that, by the way?).
You hate to make your own echoes, but as I mentioned in Forkcast a few months ago, Ulual Yyy's cover includes a photo of Krokonnen, strands of her hair covering parts of her face. One curl in particular casts a shadow, making her mouth appear larger than it is. It's a surreal, seemingly unintentional touch. The way the light's shining, it also seems to be in the middle of a particular strong sunset-- the bright moment before the moon. Across these forty-one minutes, shades and shadows play similar tricks on our ears, expanding and warping the instruments we run into on a daily basis. Islaja really does have a knack for emptying the world of familiar sounds and structures, taking us on a beautiful trek through her own scattered, darkening landscape.
[...] vast majority of the album’s material, is the fruit of a personality that seems as much in debt to the supernatural as it is the artist’s musical forebears.
read the whole review HERE
read the whole review HERE
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