ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI: FINGERS CROSSED (2003)
1) One Heavy February; 2) Souvenirs; 3) Imaginary Ordinary; 4) Scissor Paper Rock; 5) To And Fro; 6) Spring 2008; 7) The Owls Go; 8) Fumble; 9) Kindling; 10) It's Almost A Trap; 11) Like A Call; 12) Where You've Been Hiding; 13) City Calm Down; 14) Vanishing.
Can an Australian band that calls itself «Architecture In Helsinki» be any good? It probably can, but it better be real good, then, since it takes an awful lot of goodness to redeem the original sin of calling oneself «Architecture In Helsinki» when not only do you not live in Helsinki, but you live so far away from Helsinki, you might as well call yourself «Architecture In Eldorado» and get away with it on a much firmer basis. In other words, these guys are so ferociously «indie-indie» even before you hear them play a single note, they have to work double hard to earn our pardon, and triple hard to earn our admiration.
The good news is that they try, and the bad news is that they do not try hard enough — in fact, their major purpose seems, above all, to demonstrate their sworn allegiance to generic indie aesthetics. There are five primary and three secondary members in the band, playing everything from guitars to electronics to woodwinds and brass to melodica to xylophone — and, of course, there is not a single professional, let alone virtuoso, musician anywhere in sight. Vocals are democratically divided between boys and girls — and, of course, there is not a single unique vocal tone or style anywhere in sight, although everything sounds pleasant. The songs are short (we don't want to seem too pretentious), the lyrics are psychedelically introspective (we do want to seem magical and mysterious), and the arrangements are multi-layered (the more instruments we play at the same time, the less people will notice that we cannot play any of them).
Did this sound like I just described Arcade Fire? Well, not quite — Arcade Fire are not afraid of letting their songs run for more than three minutes, they do have relatively unique and easily recognizable vocal styles, and their lyrics actually make sense and show plenty of aching relevance. Most importantly, Arcade Fire are quite heavily grounded in reality, and these guys are twee-oriented, riding on rose-colored clouds until the pants are soaking wet. (To make matters worse, none of this cloud-riding has anything to do with architecture in Helsinki — much of which is conceptually following Saint-Petersburg, and could, with some reservations, be called «light», but not light enough to associate itself with this kind of music).
Nevertheless, Fingers Crossed does manage to give us an interesting, not entirely predictable kind of sound. The overall vibe is that of «little-angelish» innocence, due to all the xylophones, glockenspiels, high-pitched electronics, quasi-surf guitars, and pseudo-pre-pubescent vocals. This is not news in itself, but it is made into news by an unusually equal-rights approach to all the separate elements of the band's sound: retro-pop guitar, futuristic electronics, marching band brass combos, street-player style wind-up instruments, and folk-pop singing. With this particular brand of synthesis, Architecture In Helsinki have no problem carving themselves out their own identity — even if nobody needs it, you can't at least deny it's there somewhere.
Alas, in the end it all fails for one simple — and way too common — reason: not a single member of the eight-piece band happens to be an accomplished, or even simply talented songwriter. This is not avantagarde music: they do know how to put together strings of notes so that they end up with traditional rhythmics, harmony and melody. Throw in the rose-cloudy style of arrangement, and it's all nice and pretty and you sort of begin to feel bad about criticizing this kind of music — as if you were taking candy from a baby or something. But really and honestly, there is hardly a single song on here that has anything memorable about it. It's all atmosphere, from top to bottom, and on a record that presumably consists of two-and-a-half-minute long pop songs, «pure atmosphere» is like a humiliating rape of your expectations.
The only time where the band did strike a sensitive nerve was on ʽThe Owls Goʼ, whose repetitive, childish chorus, sung in feather-light mode by Kellie Sutherland (the band's resident clarinet and God-knows-what-else player), accidentally embottles an ounce of genuine protective tenderness (it also constitutes a terrific case of misheard lyrics for me — until I looked it up, the line "finding a replacement with a heart sedated" kept coming across as "finding a replacement for the House of David", which, I guarantee it, would give the whole song an entirely different, and far more profound, meaning). In contrast, the verses, sung by one of the band's lead vocalists (probably Cameron Bird, the guitar player), are completely blank and colorless.
Every now and then, something will faintly register on the radar, like a much weaker, fluffier variant of Broadcast (ʽScissor Paper Rockʼ, where it is clearly seen how Sutherland can come across as a shallower copy of Trish Keenan), or a watered-down imitation, perhaps a subconscious one, of the kaleidoscopic electronics of Animal Collective (ʽImaginary Ordinaryʼ), or a Beirut-like use of the brass section to generate a meekly East European flair (ʽTo And Froʼ). Nothing in these attempts is offensive or even «pathetic», because it is all so innocent and generally unpretentious: when, at the very beginning of the album, the chorus asks us, "Have we missed an opportunity?" (ʽSouvenirsʼ), you probably wouldn't even want to upset the kids with a straightforwardly negative answer. But — shh, don't tell anybody in the band, but this is exactly what it is about: a missed opportunity.
I know how it could have all worked: had the band refrained from trying to write original songs and, instead, devoted itself to covering superior material, recasting it in this pretty, cloud-a-licious, modestly innovative mold, Fingers Crossed might have passed for a charming and maybe even thought-stimulating curio. As it is, the album earned mixed reviews from the very beginning, and although the band did manage to achieve minor cult status among certain circles of twee-pop lovers, it seems quite just that they never made it to the big leagues.
Check "Fingers Crossed" (CD) on Amazon