(Green Linnet/Xenophile, 1995)

Remember how I raved about the album Seleniko by Varttina? Sometimes, it's good to stop while you're ahead.

The Finnish band's 1995 release, Aitara, falls somewhat short of my high expectations. The first track, "Katariina," actually had me checking my stereo for technical failures; I thought it was somehow playing the tune at double speed. The female singers' voices were already high and fast, but now they sounded like wired Finnish chipmunks. ("Alvin!")

Reading the translated lyrics in the liner notes didn't add to my appreciation. I thought Madonna put out some inane songs, but this one is built entirely on a village's suspicions about a girl wandering around without a belt. Of its 44 lines, 16 are simply "What's up with the girl?" Well, what's up with this song? The title track starts out good, but devolves into an annoying chant I really could do without.

Mari Kaasinen, Sari Kassinen, Kirsi Kahkonen and Sirpa Reiman still lead the band with their high-level vocal harmonies, but the lusty enthusiasm which excited me about their previous album seemed dampened in this later effort. Behind them are band veterans Janne Lappalainen on bouzouki, reeds and whistles, Riitta Potinoja on accordion and organ, and Kari Reiman on fiddle, kantele and cimbalom, plus new additions Pekka Lehti on string bass and organ, Antto Varilo on guitars and cumbus tanbur, and Anssi Nykanen on Aitara-drums.

There are some very good songs here, don't get me wrong. "Mie Tahon Tanssia" ("I Want to Dance") is a very lively song with some excellent instrumental flairs. "Tammi" ("The Oak") has the feel of a fun, syncopated waltz. "Tumala" mixes the singers' trademark cheerleaderish style with a Kenny G-like jazz background. (Hey, if someone described a song like that to me, I'd go out of my way to avoid it, but this isn't bad. Honest!)

The instrumental "Pirsta" has a lovely Eastern European sound. The song "Outona omilla mailla" has an evocative trudging tone which goes well with the theme of a boy who has wandered far from home, but its liveliness speaks of his cheerful playing as he goes. "Travuska" is the sombre-sounding tale of a young woman leaving home for an unwanted marriage.

OK, there are certainly tracks worth having. And, for the most part, the vocal harmonies of the band are still a pleasure to hear. It's not a bad album at all. But all in all, Aitara doesn't have the instant lure that drew me into its predecessor. Do yourself a favor: Buy Seleniko first. If you really like it, give Aitara a try. It's worth owning, but I wouldn't hurry.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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