Terefe Whitecross - From Here to Helsinki
Tim Miller 04/06/2009
Somewhat fittingly, given that it's high exam season just now, despite repeated attempts I've struggled to take this album in. That's a pretty worrying sign for music, don't you think? I've tried and failed several times to sit down and engage with it, but it's just not happening and before I know it I'm on Twitter without even noticing the CD has already finished.
Perhaps it might be going in one ear and out the other. It certainly isn't coming to me suddenly out of my subconscious on my lunch breaks at work. Given its back story, I'd expected something unusual, but From Here To Helsinki is far from a difficult listen. In fact, its coming into existence is far more interesting than the actual existence itself, so I'll regale that first.
Terefe Whitecross are the conjoined surnames of a songwriting duo, whose work outside of the partnership counts credits with Jem, KT Tunstall, Jason Mraz and X-Press 2 between them. From Here to Helsinki was conceived in Prague, 1999, after the pair travelled there for a week, renting a flat from the taxi driver who met them off the plane. Talk about chancing your arm, huh. But it gets more intriguing. Nick Whitecross and Martin Terefe read about an annual conference held at Prague Castle - the biggest mediaeval castle in the world - blithely registered their interest and were somehow invited along as 'observers'. Essentially this entailed 'observing' the debate and discussion of Forum 2000, a think-tank on world political issues like globalisation, whose participants included such lofty names as Bill Clinton, Peter Gabriel and The Dalai Lama. After discussing these major talking points, they all lunched together in the lavish rooms of this fabulous castle, and then the pair would sample the Prague nightlife and ruminate on the day's goings on. Continuing this pattern for several days, they'd return back to their flat each night, penning songs generated by the experience. As London called them home, ten new songs were brewing.
That was ten years ago this autumn. So, knowing that, would you not expect something a little out of the ordinary - a second album 13 years after the first, ten years in the making, wrought of unique experiences in castles and foreign cities? Is that so much to ask?
Apparently, yes. From Here To Helsinki's ten songs run to a smidge over half an hour (seriously, seven seconds over), including two one-minute-something musings, and are minimal, rather than expansive, in build. The opening salvo of tracks are electronically focused; Even Giants Fall sounds something like Kasabian stoned, a vague scuzzy guitar sliding over the top of the chorus, and Silent Protest Song is a hypnotic dub effort that expands into some heavier bass work, then breaks into a Massive Attack-esque gospel chorus at the end which is the best bit, but unfortunately over in about 20 seconds.
This track also exposes a major flaw in the album; namely the woefully limited vocals, both in range and skill. When they are employed over just the acoustic guitar - as happens frequently in the second half of From Here To Helsinki in songs Sunshine, Whale Song and Monk and the Rapist (there might never be another song that fails so staggeringly to do justice to its title as this) - the result is completely forgettable, though granted Whale Song, in the moment, is pleasant enough.
One of my favourite bits - 'bits' because the track is a minute long - is Donald, a fuzzy drum-heavy rock snippet that is basically a cycle of one motif repeated four times. It probably speaks volumes that this is a stand out point in the album. Elsewhere, Jesus is a Hippie is a bluntly-sung in-joke presumably; imagine Babybird's 'You're Gorgeous' without any trace of irony. The Collector meanwhile is touted as a meeting of Air and The Beatles, which I suppose you can get away with given that Air have disappeared off the radar and, if you have to, any music can be pretty much traced back to some Beatles song.
Harsh though all that might sound, the album isn't aurally offensive. It isn't aurally anything much, in fact, which is the major letdown: most tracks are barely more than a vocal, bass and electro/guitar layer marshalled by synthetic drums. It's taken ten years for this partnership to get this album together, and it's got as much staying power as a 15-year old boy losing his virginity. With a bit of luck the next one takes so long to create that it never gets finished.
Released 1 June 2009
Author's note: I owe much of this review to the person who wrote the press release, as the back story is lifted almost word for word from that. Without that, this is such a dull, unremarkable album, I wouldn't have even bothered, but somehow the PR machine got me to go ahead with the review. I utterly resent this fact, and wish I hadn't.