Helsinki – Helsinki

Helsinki
Helsinki

This self-titled debut album by Helsinki (composed of Jon Callender of Cranes, who plays drums and keyboards and does programming, vocalist and lyricist Hayley Alker, and guitarist LJ Jenkins (with a guitar assist from Jim Shaw of Cranes on one song)) was a pleasant surprise to my ears. For some reason I usually don’t expect that much from band member side projects (ie., Jon of Cranes), but this was a low-key and varied treat of winsome vocals, rich lyrics, and atmospheric instrumentation.

I was immediately swayed by Hayley’s vocals, which glow with a sad radiance and, soon after, by the lyrics and music. Hayley often sounds like Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays, but not as innocent or coy or sharply nasal-sounding. Her vocals are clear, but breathy and heathery at times, aching with a wistful, well-enunciated, British inflection.

Most of the songs are slow to mid-tempo paced and create soundscapes that, at first listen seem unassuming, but eventually filter into your consciousness and imbue your emotional state with a moody, contemplative vibe.

Clinking dishes (I think) open the song “Huxley”, as tapping cymbals and a slow, circling, guitar-based aero-noise sound(es)cape builds up. Hayley comes in downbeat, but sweet, with some pretty memorable lyrics “Why does it feel like you’re wondering who you really are? You’re chasing the stars…” and the sound increases with a mid-tempo beat, chime-like guitar notes, and a ‘water globule’ background sound. I just love the lyrics in this one, with the closing lines “You’re a starry-eyed fatality, escaping from reality”.

“Spike” starts with laid-back, squelchy, 70s guitar notes and hushed singing and the sound of rapid breathing and then flows into slowdive-like guitar uplift, with Hayley’s vocals echoed and sometimes doubled and laden with strings.

Piquant violin plucks start off “Helsinki Sunset”, until laid-back, liquid guitar lines take over, with Hayley sounding just like Harriet Wheeler with her inflection on some lyrics. Her vocals are mid-range in tone and syrupy, lifting up a little on the ends of phrases. Cymbal aps and violins create a Cranes-like disquieting sound as a scrambling guitar/noise pushes to the forefront, along with a main, burnished-sunset guitar sound (could that be Jim Shaw of Cranes?).

“Stirred Not Shaken” carries James Bond movie guitar lines against a slowly loping beat and mechanized synth beeps (sounding like Cranes more recent musical direction on Particles and Waves album), while Hayley sound sinuous and assured – a totally different vocal manner and tone than on the previous or future songs! There are assorted noises throughout the song that call to mind Portishead in the ghostly tone and Pram in the off-kilter, carousel vibe.

The ‘confessional’ song “Star Crazy” comes next with frank lyrics “…so leave me alone, and I won’t tell a soul, but I haven’t been myself for such a long, long time…” and Hayley sounding like a despondent, yet expressive Harriet Wheeler with a heathery tremble. It’s a lament of sorts, with high-pitched flute/synth notes, a slow, drawn out beat, and light, bell-tone notes, which mix in Lush-like, chimy guitar notes by the finish.

Not sure what “Ogru 1” means, but this number is musically low-key and light, with a slightly staticy background while Hayley sings in a more straight-forward tone about the breakdown of a relationship and the question of what happens next. She has a Tori Amos-like introspection with the lyrics “…when I want to feel that you are very near me, I just close my eyes and dream that you are close…” and the song feels as if it’s a pop number cloaked in a musically-wandering construct. All it needs is a catchier hook, music-wise, and this would have more impact besides the lyrics and vocal delivery.

“The Pledge” is another slow number and, interestingly, at the beginning, it sounds like something Miki or Emma of Lush could have created, with its ascending vocal progression. Hayley sings this one in a duskier, lower register, against light, bell-like notes, some sharper, marching-drum beat, and floating-cloud synth lines. Mid-way the guitars open up and a bigger, airy synth sound builds up, as Hayley’s vocals are doubled “…I’ve been waiting only for you…”

The next song “Minerals” pushes the pace a bit, with a mid-tempo trip-hop beat and synth notes, while Hayley again changes her vocals, this time to a whisper and then to seductive, with an ache in her vocal delivery. The darker tone is appealing, with it’s restrained, chime-y guitars and lyrics “…what to do when all the living dreams have gone?”. Hayley’s vocals get sad and trembly with that line, as the beats get more bouncy – it’s an odd, but interesting contrast.

“Europa” is an instrumental with a dark current – spacy, synth-based, and building up until it reaches for The Church-like atmospheric heights. I hear drums, cybals, synth notes, gritty noise, some guitar, owl-in-flight-type noises (ummm, I’m probably way off!) – all presented in a controlled manner, like a ballerina music box playing a ghostly-dirge waltz – until mid-way through the song and the guitars become The Church-like – reverbbed, liquidy-fiery, building up and flaming to the sky until the guitar sounds die out and bell-like synth notes come in, then fade, until only a tapped cymbal remains.

The last song “Fresia” takes a while to get going, but stay patient – it’s worth it. There is nary a beat for about 3 and 1/2 minutes (to cleanse the aural palate, perhaps?), then there’s a knocking sound, a telephone rings, getting louder, someone walks down stairs, then it’s Hayley answering the phone “Hello? Hello?…Hello?…Is anybody there?” (She kinda sounds like actress Sienna Miller here) – then then it all goes deep into Plaid territory, with plump, squelchy electronica beats and zip-zappy sounds – repetitive, but infectious, and getting louder, stronger, and more rhythmic as the tune progresses – really fun and unexpected!