Accept Google Analytics cookies?
Tuomo Prättälä and Markus Nordenstreng – singers, songwriters and co-founders of a band they named the easy way, after the ties that bind and bring this music – open Game Changing, their second album, with a contradiction we all know too well from the past two years: the sense and sound of time at once frozen and flying by; hours passing with agonizing stillness as the days and weeks run in a blur that seems to leave hope and options by the side of the road.
It’s as if we’ve even shown up late to this record, entering a title song already in motion. Prättälä’s piano walks in irregular circles against a tick-tock bass pulse. Voices call us to attention with whispered urgency and that sly paraphrase in the second verse of John Lennon with his back to the wall in the Beatles’ “Help”: “Love seems to vanish in the haze.”
Then comes the breakaway. The piano veers into a staircase march; morning-call trumpet, cleansing strings from the Budapest Art Orchestra and Nordenstreng’s rain of ’65-Byrds guitars build to a missionary peak – “We must reinvent ourselves again” – like a Who’s Next for a new crossroads. Choose your issue or crisis: love, family; the health of democracy; the very life of the planet. In “Game Changing” and most of the songs that follow, we are perilously close to game over. We also get the music we need to stand up, grab the light and share it with a vengeance.
I’ve been this way before with Tuomo and Markus: at shows in New York and Texas and in my writing and radio advocacy for Dead Circles, their double-LP debut, issued in their native Finland in 2016. Before that, I was a fan of Nordenstreng’s previous adventure in roots and progression, The Latebirds, and I first encountered Prättälä in his jazz life as the pianist in the acclaimed Ilmiliekki Quartet, founded in 2002 with trumpeter Verneri Pohjola – who was, in turn, a member of Tuomo and Markus when I saw the band for the first time in 2017 at the SXSW festival in Austin. Later, in Rolling Stone, I described Dead Circles and the live experience that came with it as “steeped in the pioneer stories of the Band, the painted-desert psychedelia of the American Beauty-era Grateful Dead and the modernist extensions of Wilco and the Tucson band Calexico.”
Members of the last two bands played all over Dead Circles – the album was largely made at Calexico’s Arizona studio – and the Wilco friendship goes back even further. Radio Insomnia and Last of the Good Old Days, the Latebirds’ 2005 and 2010 albums, included guest work by Wilco bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
I also noted this history, closer to home, in my Rolling Stone review: “The pastoral prog-rock improvising of the great Seventies Finnish band Wigwam.” That night at SXSW, amid the originals, Tuomo and Markus took the Dead’s Europe ’72 murder ballad “Jack Straw” for a spin with Nordic-Fillmore tinge and the prairie-Miles sustain of Pohjola’s trumpet. The flashback, for me, was immediate: to Wigwam’s country-soul spaceout, across the whole side of a 1975 live album, in “The Moon Struck One,” a gorgeous ballad from the Band’s 1971 LP, Cahoots. The spiritual connection came next, after the SXSW set, when Nordenstreng introduced me to Pohjola, a composer and bandleader in his own right – and the son of Wigwam’s Pekka Pohjola, a Finnish rock legend and the bassist on that Band cover.
These roots and energies still run long, wide and deep on Game Changing, through genre, era and geography. That’s the sound of psychedelic Helsinki blowing through L.A.’s Laurel Canyon in “Predator,” a nightmare of false peace and surveillance in rich, eccentric textures that suggest Gene Clark’s 1974 album, No Other. Note that “Predator” was co-produced with Jonathan Wilson, a resident force in the current Laurel Canyon scene who knows a few things about expressing paranoia and outrage with widescreen beauty as a touring sideman for Roger Waters.
And there’s the return on Game Changing of guitarist Marc Ribot, a fixture of experimental New York and a first-call sideman for, among many others, Tom Waits, John Zorn and Elvis Costello. Ribot played on the Latebirds’ first album, 2003’s Fortune Cookies. Here, in the slinky-funk refusal of “We’re Not Buying It,” his wiry flourishes spike the electro-Seventies sobriety of Markus’ Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 – the same drum machine that grounded Sly and the Family Stone’s landmark darkness, 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. In “Hecho en Mexico,” a song about families and dreams devastated by borders and racism, Ribot’s plaintive, electric soloing and acoustic tres cubano guitar put you in the riverbeds and next to the razor wire, framed in sighs of brass, accordion and pedal steel guitar.
Game Changing is also true to its title, almost like another debut in the starting over. Recorded in Finland and the U.S., including a long weekend with indie-pop cult hero Ed Ackerson in his Minneapolis studio (one of Ackerson’s last sessions before his death in October, 2019), it’s the first Tuomo and Markus album fully made with the group I saw at SXSW. Pedal-steel guitarist Miikka “McGyver” Paatelainen, bassist Jeremias Ijäs and drummer-trombonist Juho Viljanen all played on Dead Circles but together only on the title song. On Game Changing, with Pohjola, they are the band, the mural and momentum behind Prättälä and Nordenstreng as they look hard at the world and the high tides of despair.
There is deceptive comfort in the cushioning swing of “Wishful Information,” a song about the manipulative pull of social media (“Your whole mind will be destroyed/And your sight’s bound to grow dim”). “Galway” is a pilgrimage in starlight, the combination of McGyver’s pedal steel, Nordenstreng’s campfire strings ( dulcimer, guitars, banjo) and the added touch of Pekko Käppi’s bowed lyre conjuring both the American West and the Finnish north via David Crosby’s 1971 masterpiece, If I Could Only Remember My Name. And when normal comes around again, I look forward to the shows when this band takes the release I hear in the last lines – “Close your eyes and dream away/Let this season go” – to exhilirating extremes in the long roads and improvising spells of “Aliens With Extraordinary Talents” and “Hearing Voices.”
“The only thing you can count on/Is things are about to change,” Prättälä and Nordenstreng sing as one in “Love Is Coming Down” – a promise made again and again on this album. Six years in the waiting and finished amid a fear and uncertainty many of us have never known before, Game Changing is a second album about new beginnings, by a band with a future still being written. Here is the story so far.
New York City