The idea of an alt-Americana band from Helsinki may sound a bit incongruous, but with Finland’s the Latebirds, the results are more convincing than you’d initially expect. Last of the Good Ol’ Days (Second Motion), the band’s U.S. debut, states the ‘birds’ case clearly. An enticing collection of rock and folk sounds smartly delivered, Days mixes melancholy self-help entreaties with more angry socio-cultural plaints to decent effect.
Led by the sweetly weedy vocalist Markus Nordenstreng — and abetted by “honorary Latebirds” like ace keyboardist Benmont Tench, Minnie Driver, Levon Helms and Kris Kristofferson — the new release casts a tunefully critical eye toward our modern “broken world.” In the title track, for example, Nordenstreng reminds us of a truism Hank Williams would recognize, “We’re all born to die eventually.” In the follow-up mid-tempo paean to carrying on, “Among the Survivors,” the singer croons over an ear-tickling fuzzy guitar line to someone “lucky to still be alive.”
Experienced geezer music, in other words, sung from the perspective of someone who’s more than a little surprised to still be around.
If at times the poppy vocals seem to bump against the music’s grizzled sentiments, the instrumental smarts of the band (which even includes a former member of the cultural instrumentalists Laika & the Cosmonauts) keep you coming back. Ain’t a lot of groups that’d think to add musical saw to a gospel-tinged closeout, but these guys do.
Stand-out track to these ears proves one of the album’s angriest: “Fearless,” a tribute to murdered Russian journalist Anne Politkovskaja, with a ragingly orchestrated hard-rock backing and lyrics that noodge the dittohead listener to think for themselves. Good ol’ didactic, pissed-off protest rock — we could use a lot more of it these days.
The current release also features an EP of five tracks cut at Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio. Three of these are covers of singer/songwriter mainstays Steve Goodman, Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt, alongside two new Nordenstreng numbers. Though the band’s slowed-down remake of “City of New Orleans” won’t make you forget either the original or Arlo Guthrie’s cover, their folk-rocky Van Zandt cover is worth a listen, while the sound of a croakin’ Kristofferson taking “In the News” over from the soft-voiced Latebird lead provides a telling contrast. One of the survivors, indeed.