Friday, September 18, 2009

Foxy Digitalis review of 'Mushroom Heart'

Joonatan Elokuu "Mushroom Heart" CD-r
Kiiltomatolyhty / Hear

Having never heard of this wandering psych-folk visionary before, I was absolutely blindsided by the first song on this extremely limited CD-R. “Adieu to Old Finland” (a recontextualization of the traditional prison ballad “Adieu to Old England”, popularized by Shirley Collins) is an utterly haunting and mesmerizing duet between Joonatan and his wife Helena. While already perfect as a strictly vocal piece, the duo is gradually supplanted by a brilliant coda of menacing ambiance, somber banjo, and a strangled, nightmarish guitar. The pair later achieve a similar, albeit somewhat lesser, feat on the more sprawling bookend “As Fair as Gilead” (a cover of “Solomon’s Song” by Incredible String Band defector Clive Palmer’s remarkably obscure C.O.B. project). Elokuu has quite a knack for unearthing and revivifying great lost songs.

The rest of the album never quite equals the achingly beautiful opening, but it’s still quite memorable. When Joonatan is the sole vocalist, he sounds a bit like some of Death in June’s more inspired moments (especially during “Rain Falls Hard on Camden Town”), yet warmer and more timelessly rooted in traditional music. While his songs are quite strong to begin with (most are originals, though he also covers Donovan’s “The Little White Road”), they are often inventively enhanced by subtle intrusions from field recordings and psychotropic electronic drones and hums. Elokuu displays a rather unerring intuition for the perfect balance between mind-warping experimentation and song craft, as well as an ear for augmenting his organic, uncluttered songs with beautiful harmonies and splashes of color from a wisely employed array of flutes, accordions, and other instruments.

Interestingly, this album was recorded over a period of three years, during which Elokuu traveled around Finland, the British Isles, and India and used whatever instrumentation was available. Despite this rootlessness and the ever-shifting circumstances involved in its conception, “Mushroom Heart” is thematically coherent, well-produced, and meticulously constructed and sequenced. Equally surprising is the fact this is merely the debut release for this project (Joonatan was previously involved in the more free-form Aura Shining Green), yet it already sounds lived-in and fully formed. That said, it has two minor weaknesses: Elokuu’s originals are not quite as strong as his covers (yet) and Helena’s captivating vocals are woefully underused. Nevertheless, this may very well be the greatest album ever recorded by a peripatetic Finnish folkie (and it is certainly one of the year’s most pleasant surprises). I can’t wait to hear more. 9/10 -- Anthony D'Amico (17 September, 2009)