Fair warning: I'm one of the people who think that the best Luomo album is the first one (2000's Vocalcity), and that Sasu Ripatti's musical output has been in steep and consistent decline ever since. I thought Paper Tigers (2006) was just about unlistenable. But Convivial was being touted as some kind of creative rebirth in the reviews, and it features lots of different guest vocalists, so I thought I'd give it a shot. In fact, the vocalists do put a lot of life back into Ripatti's increasingly boring micro-house. Unfortunately, the stylistic departures are entirely confined to the first side, and after that it's Luomo as usual.
I must note that Convivial has a few extremely good songs, probably the best Luomo tracks since 2000. "Love You All" is the most immediate and obvious highlight. The vocalist (someone called Apparat) gives a dark, dramatic performance unlike anything ever heard on a Luomo album before. The deliberately slow delivery, the yearning tone of the chorus are indelible -- the romantic mood is similar to Vocalcity, but much more theatrical. Wisely, Ripatti eschews his usual tendency to cut up the vocals and loop them endlessly, and just lets the man sing. As a result, we get an exceptional performance.
But the album's peak is actually the next track, "If I Can't," featuring Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters. I am not a fan of his main band, but his performance here is excellent. The vocal rhythm in the verses is the best pop hook on the whole album; it has a concise yet original form that Luomo hasn't exhibited since Vocalcity. Even the lyrics are pretty good, which is definitely a first for a Luomo song. The line, "you make me turn away in the name of decency" is a touching image of innocence. Shears' voice is a seductive purr, multi-tracked with wistful sighs: melancholy but sensual, like all the best techno.
Also deserving of an honourable mention is the opening track, "Have You Ever." It also has a good vocal rhythm, and the fey delivery of the vocalist suggests some kind of smoky, late-night atmosphere. The music, like the voice, is barely there, very restrained, but this actually fits the mood.
You'll notice that all my praise is going to the vocalists. That's because the music, while better than the ambient goop in Paper Tigers, is fairly unremarkable, even in the good songs. For the most part, its sole function is to provide a rhythmic backing for the vocalists; there are no purely musical standout moments. The partial exception is maybe "If I Can't," which starts with rhythm-chord stabs reminiscent of "Market" from Vocalcity. But the music has none of the dub richness that characterized that album, nor does it have the lush but firm, satisfying thump of The Present Lover (2004). The beats have less of a kick. The chorus of "Love You All" has appropriately starry-eyed strings, but the rest of the music consists of a stuttering beat and a droning one-note keyboard line not far removed from eighties dance music. Still, you probably won't notice these things unless you've been listening to the songs on repeat for a while -- Shears and Apparat are that good.
Alas, the good moments end with track three. The rest of the album is a lukewarm rehash of Paper Tigers, which itself was a lukewarm rehash of The Present Lover. The similarity becomes especially obvious after track five, when the guests are replaced by Luomo's long-time stock vocalist Johanna Iivanainen. The songs meticulously follow the template of Paper Tigers: the vocals stutter and stammer endlessly, repeating one brief vocal sample. In "Gets Along Fine," the vocals repeat parts of the phrase, "We don't get along well." In "Lonely Music Co.," they repeat, "I keep my stereo on for days." In "Sleep Tonight," they repeat, "Can you sleep tonight." In "Nothing Goes Away," there's actually a complete vocal performance, but unfortunately the vocalist is saddled with the usual awful Luomo lyric. This time, it's, "Every time I sit down and close my eyes, and clear my mind, I realize -- nothing goes away!" The music matches this level of substance with increasingly forgettable beats. The ending of "Slow Dying Places" is filled with messy bleeps and reedy synths whose musical potential had been fully explored by Warp Records in the early nineties.
That's the problem here: everything that the positive reviews say about Convivial is true, but only in regard to the first three tracks, not the rest of the album. I strongly recommend buying downloads of "Love You All" and "If I Can't." These are truly great songs. The album as a whole, however, dilutes the good parts with large amounts of grating filler. Sadly, it's not quite the reinvention it's been presented as -- it could have been a lot better if he really had used a different vocalist for every song.