Ville Leinonen’s debut LP Suudelmitar resembles nothing so much as an unexpected and pleasantly surprising postcard: arriving stateside courtesy of Fonal four years after it first appeared in the artist’s native Finland, the album chronicles Leinonen’s travels to places both real and imaginary, charting a global itinerary that spans vast stretches of space and time.
Musically, Leinonen is firmly planted in the ’60s, drawing upon bohemian folk (Donovan comes to mind), bossa nova, and imaginary exoticism (George Harrison’s India, Ennio Morricone’s wild west). While Suudelmitar does perhaps risk being an overly touristic map of musical styles and exotic locations, it generally defies expectations, playing music and lyrics off against one another in contradictory ways rather than simply evoking a particular place and time. At times, this is achieved by mismatching subject and style: Leinonen’s two stabs at bossa nova, for instance, describe Taiwan and Vienna rather than the tropical milieus we might expect. In other instances, the mismatch is more complex: while lyrics on certain tracks seem to be describing first-person experiences (both real and imagined), the musical style that accompanies them feels like an assumed “readymade,” a preexisting form with its own associations and history that confuses personal memory with cultural memory, expressing at the same time a nostalgia for one’s own experience and nostalgia for a past cultural moment (i.e., the 1960s).
Nostalgia, however, doesn’t quite seem to be what Leinonen is after here; rather he draws upon existing associations to complicate them, insisting upon the independence of his own expression from the styles and tropes that he uses. Suudelmitar’s most impressive track, “Hiljaa Ui Malawée,” effectively epitomizes his aesthetic. While drawing upon some of the most heavily-used tropes of ’60s pop (which at this point are generally employed simply to denote their era, or our imagining of it) – sitar and tabla, wordless Morricone vocalizations, Herb Alpert brass – Leinonen sings about a dangerous trek through the savannahs of Africa. It sounds rather silly and over-the-top on paper, but is completely compelling and convincing in its execution. Rather than resorting to emulation and pastiche, Leinonen mixes his ingredients in such a way that what we initially might regard as familiar and trite becomes strange and new again.
This track, it must be conceded, is a limit case: most of the album isn’t quite so interesting, although it is uniformly excellent. Leinonen is a consistent songwriter, and possesses a degree of vocal control and subtlety that’s rare outside of trained singers. More importantly, he succeeds in expressing, both in his music and lyrics, a desire for exploration and an awe at the world that could compel the most jaded traveler.