Some time ago my big brother tipped me off about a group from Finland called ”Vasas Flora och Fauna” who had released an album he considered worth checking out. The core of the band consisted of only two persons, Mattias Björkas and Iiris Viljanen, both from Vasa in the Swedish-speaking part of Finland. Björkas has a past in Finnish indiepop band ”Cats on fire”, where he sang in English to the tune of pretty British-sounding guitar pop. Viljanen is a pianist, singer and songwriter, also with a history of being in the same band.
If we go back in time to 2012, ”Cats on fire” made their last album to date, called ”All blackshirts to me”. A record filled with well-produced and very competent guitar-based indiepop. Good songs, expertly played, sometimes great melodies, but somehow still not really clicking. As guitar pop goes this is about as good as it gets, and has sonic echoes of my all time Swedish heroes ”The Bear Quartet”. A very enjoyable album in a style that´s in many ways part of the cultural air I breathe. Yet something essential was missing.
Fastforward to 2015. Björkas and Viljanen had been trying out songs in different ways and shapes, but nothing worked to their satisfaction. That is, until they came up with the idea of singing the songs in the Finnish Österbotten regional dialect of Swedish. Now everything fell into place, and the first original album by ”Vasas Flora och Fauna”, called ”Släkt med Lotta Svärd”, came into being.
Although a pretty low-profile recording it contains a set of songs unique in every aspect – the music, the lyrics, the delivery and the strangely melodic properties of the words sung. From the first note to the last this is an album that absolutely floored me. Not by inventing a new musical style, but by using the traditional trappings of pop music to create a deeply personal sonic and poetic landscape. A few of the songs on the album are actually re-works of songs from “Cats on fire”-albums , adding crucial inspiration to both music and words. Putting together parts that´s been used a million times before into something shiny and new and bold is a mark of true creativity.
Piano-fuelled opener ”Gudförälder” sets the tone with it´s minor key lament of the friend-of-the-mother-become-lost-and-confused-godparent-with-the-will-to-make-a-difference-lyric.
”Om jag nånsin far till Jakobstad igen” is a delicately flowing Monkees cover with sublimely melodic acoustic guitar rekindling your belief in the power of pop.
”Prisma” goes into piano ballad territory, and is the new group´s version of the ”Cats on fire” song ”Our old centre back”. Moving from a guitar-based sound to a much starker piano backing, as well as changing the lyrics from the original athletes and alcohol romp, to an intensely personal tale of the woes of young love made all the difference. Great works of art are not born complete but instead fine-tuned by hard work.
”Leevi & the Leavings” combines an homage to a legendary Finnish band with a coming of age history told against the backdrop of the most bittersweet pop you could ever imagine. A song which will make everyone with a melodic bone in their body dance around and sing along in a rush of euphoria. I´m afraid that the special character of the lyrics sung in their Swedish/Finnish dialect will be lost on almost everyone. However, for those of us who can appreciate it it´s absolutely sublime. I´ll leave it to you to find the earlier song it´s modelled on.
”Nog var han en vän” is another re-work of the album. The original by ”Cats on fire” was called ”1914 and beyond” and was a song about European politics through the years, even incorporating verses about the Greek sovereing default and the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in 2010. You decide which you think is best, I know what I think.
Of the closing 5 songs ”Stängningsdax” glows the brightest, while a few of the others lose tempo both musically and lyrically. In no way does this marr an extrordinary album of both musical and poetic freshness. This is a record that I will never ever tire of and that has combined qualities that goes way beyond it´s integral parts. And mind you, this is original music made by real musicians. Not something sampled and recombined by someone that knows computers.
Shortly after this album was released, Iiris Viljanen announced that she was quitting the group for undisclosed reasons. First making a record of piano work, she then released what could be called her proper solo debut, ”Mercedes”. A collection of idiosyncratic piano-based songs with lyrics even more personal. Chronicles of lost and mistaken love, somatic and mental health issues, intellect and emotion, nature and the urbane. Songs at the edge of the personal and emotional, while still being art instead of art mimicking life. A gift of an album that will continue to grow, made by an artist just beginning to find her feet.
Although I´m not prone to analysis geared by gender, I still think that these three records shows qualities dependent on the persons that made them. The ”Cats on fire” album is a prime example of what is considered contemporary indie pop, in most respects a male group endeavour. On the other side of the spectrum you have Iiris Viljanen´s very personal and emotional stories of modern life in our time, refracted through a singular and perceptive female mind. ”Vasas flora och fauna” is music made somewhere in between, keeping both the craft and the personal emotions. Smart as well as sincere words. Capitalizing on the long history of pop music as the vehicle of ideas. Which of these records do you believe is my favourite? Yeah, I thought so.
I haven´t yet heard the new album by “Vasas flora and fauna”, but I´m sure it´s going to be something completely different.