H.C. Slim - Sings [ Svart Records - 2019]Finnish singer/songwriter Joose Keskitalo, also known as 'H.C. Slim', plays what he refers to in the liner notes of his latest album Sings as "outsider folk" music. It is a stripped down, simplistic, sleepy style with mumbled, intimate vocals.
Generally the energy level and tempo are very low, with every note from the guitar little more than a gentle brushing from the fingers, the riffs almost implied more than boldly played. Keskitalo's vocal is the same way, with just enough breath to rise above a whisper and carry a vague tune, lazily lagging behind the beat.
When the music is so stripped down and the energy is this low, one might expect some emotional vulnerability, and that Keskitalo delivers. His cracking voice evokes nostalgia and world weariness, occasionally surprising me with ornate and flowery phrases that bare his poetic soul. "The City is Burning" is his best articulated piece to my ears, stating, "the city is burning, the skyline is burning, for all things must burn. Slowly I'm learning, our friendship is burning, but all things are indifferent to me".
Christian themes appear in such a way as to suggest an homage to classic Americana, with songs that sound like spirituals from the American South of the 1800's. Tracks like "Cherubim", "Virgin Mary" and "Wheels of Judgement" are classic Biblical messages told without a hint of irony or analysis. Having grown up in Christianity and seen the evils its delusionality has wracked upon my home country, I have absolutely no nostalgia for this 'old time religion', and these songs hold no emotion for me.
Indeed, Keskitalo's obvious Finnishness and heavy accent seem to be at odds with this 'Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?' vibe. Having grown up in the country from which he takes his inspiration, I have to say that these sounds have already been recaptured by countless modern singers, and H.C. Slim's rendition is hardly the most charismatic or vibrant. His voice leaves much to be desired, hovering hesitantly within a range of 2-3 notes, often talk-singing and holding back from clear or memorable melodic figures, like a Bob Dylan without confidence, or any message aside from the same tired Christian spiel.
There are a couple flashes of interest later in the album, for me, such as the sweet harmonica playing and slide guitar of "Wheels of Judgement", or the harmonized vocals of "Over River Jordan". The entire album could have benefitted from the fuller instrumentation heard in these songs.
In the end there's nothing odd enough about Sings to call it 'outsider' music. Its problem is actually that it's so basic, it really has no distinguishing features to recommend it. It is pleasant and relaxing enough, and would fade comfortably into the background of a scene of a TV Show which features characters camping or trekking through the wilderness. I enjoy the gentle subtlety of his guitar work, but he needs to rework his vocal persona into something more charismatic and original. The melancholy sluggishness of this recording is not something I will likely return to.Josh Landry