Listening to Islaja’s latest, Keraaminen Paa, I’m reminded of a scene from The Devil and Daniel Johnston in which Johnston’s brother mentions that Daniel would’ve loved to record his early works in a state-of-the-art studio, but obviously didn’t have the access. Johnston eventually did get into professional studios, but those albums aren’t the ones for which he’ll be remembered. His status is inextricably linked with the fidelity of his recordings; whether that early material would be as beloved were it professionally recorded is an open question.
A major part of Islaja’s charm lies in how she sneaks personality and melody into ostensibly ramshackle, murky, formless folk. The “lo-fi” nature of albums like 2005’s Palaa aurinkoon only helped her projects by making her sound even more unassuming. Perhaps her earlier albums might work if they were beefed up, but the point is, they’re great as they are.
Is Keraaminen Paa the high fidelity album that Islaja, a.k.a. Merja Kokkonen, has wanted to make all along? Loud and brash, with vocals high in the mix, this is the closest Kokkonen has gotten to Bjork, to whom she is sometimes compared. The dank, freaked acoustic guitar work is completely gone. On “Pimeytta Kohti,” the basement melodica and atmospheric sounds that pervade the earlier albums are present, but the focus lies on a stately piano and clear-as-day vocals. It’s Susanna and The Magic Orchestra for those who don’t want to be bored to death.
I’m not sure the new approach completely works. Kokkonen’s ability to suggest structure while keeping things free remains intact, but most of the mystery is gone. It doesn’t help that, for the first time, an English language translation of the lyrics is provided. Maybe some of the poetry has been lost in translation, but most of the lyrics are similar to this stanza from “Otaku’s Threat”: "When I saw you, hand on your cheek, / mourning your personality and misfortune / I couldn’t comfort you / I couldn’t find the words.” Pretty thudded-out stuff.
Then again, all of her lyrics could be this thudded-out. And it’s really difficult to say that the songs themselves are objectively worse. Some gorgeous melodies, and again, Islaja’s songs move from front to back like no one else’s. I just don’t think that stuffed, produced arrangements particularly suit her. In August, Root Strata released a split 7” of a capella tracks from Christina Carter and Islaja as part of its Tsuki No Seika series. On her side, Kokkonen’s vocals are produced, loud and clear, but completely unaccompanied, save for some reversed sounds and disquieting squeals, and the song is terrific. With Keraaminen Paa, it’s nice to hear Islaja try to expand into a new sound, but that 7” shows that more rewarding territory might lie elsewhere.