Elmo Karjalainen – Back Where We Belong – Album Review
In the whirlwind of starting things up at sleepingbagstudios long ago, it was kind of impossible to think too far ahead. Everything was so go-go-go all the time that I never really had the luxury of reflecting on what the future would hold for what was being started, just the option of continuing and following through to see where it might all end up one day. When I used to write music reviews for the now defunct Kludge Magazine when I first got my start, that was all mainstream stuff…rarely did I ever get to actually connect to the artists involved or get to know them at all beyond the music, which is why ever since I’ve been here I’ve learned how much I prefer the independent scene in that respect. In many respects really…I suppose that’s the point. Having artists & bands pop in & out of my life as a reviewer, listening to their stories, songs, and journeys…there really are no words to capture just how much this has all meant to me throughout the years and it’s not something I ever saw coming. As our tiny little site was growing, so was every single artist & band we’ve had the good fortune to work with…and as a result, I’ve been able to really get to know some of these musical superheroes of our universe through their music & hear how they’ve changed over time, or their range of inspirations throughout the years. There is a vast number of reasons as to why it’s always awesome to get more of the story, more of the music, more of the picture…the effect over time, is that these artists/bands become part of our lives.
For example, technically, I’ve been listening to guitarist Elmo Karjalainen for nearly four full years at this point – this will be the third record of his that I’ve reviewed here in Canada, from him all the way in Finland. You see what I mean? How awesome is that ONE fact alone – and yet there are so many more reasons as to why it’s amazing to have an artist like Elmo pop back into my life randomly with a new set of tunes. Here’s another fun fact for you that’ll prove how much I continued to listen & how much I remember his music; not only do I know the man is among the best guitar players out there in the independent scene hands-down – but where most music-journalists would have to glance back through their article to double-check & see how they spelled his last name the last time they wrote it – I actually have it memorized & have for some time at this point. I’m not saying I deserve an award, I’m just saying, I know the man about as well as a guy could from this far away on the other side of the planet and nothing but instrumental tunes to tell his story and speak for him – but that’s truly just how good he is – you’ll remember Elmo Karjalainen. He’s able to tell his story his way and be himself, through music.
Even with all I’ve heard on The Free Guitar Album and Age Of Heroes, I’m sure I’m still far from knowing his full story…but thankfully, I think he’s also far from finished telling it, which is why he’s always working on new music and continually releasing new records. But as legend has it, Back Where We Belong is actually a follow-up record, a gathering of songs from throughout the years that respond to what he created on his album Where We Belong. “Meant to relax the listener” – Elmo’s spot-on about that…I’ve had the record on repeat for what seems like days now with no intention of stopping once this review is written – Back Where We Belong is full of stunning & gorgeous guitar melodies. Elmo being Elmo and holding himself to the highest of standards, the official press release even goes as far as to mention that “this album is not perfect. It has its share of mistakes left in there…” – and while that might very well be true…good lord, if you’re anyone NOT named Elmo, you’d never even hear’em. Facts are facts…the man has a special gift for guitar that most players wouldn’t even understand – and hearing him in this acoustic setting for the new record…just brings the beauty in his musicianship up to the surface to shimmer & shine even more. This entire album absolutely radiates beautiful sound.
Ultimately, that’s the bulk of the review right there…I’ll go on and make some comments about the individual tracks below, but your main takeaway should be that this record, is one total experience. If there are faults, they wouldn’t be heard by most human ears – and if anything, they certainly wouldn’t be what people leave remembering about these songs. What they’ll hear is the extraordinary instrumentation, the exquisite melodies, and the sincere connection Elmo has to his guitar, full-stop. For myself personally…I honestly don’t know if it does or COULD get better than this; I’ve always been a fan of Elmo’s music, but this record…THIS RECORD…is exceptionally gorgeous from beginning to end.
The gentle beginning of the album’s title tune “Back Where We Belong” will tell ya pretty much everything you need to know about the experience you’re in-store for right away. Gorgeously recorded, immaculately played, with beautifully progressive writing & accessible, heartfelt melodies, Elmo roams throughout the fret-board with confidence & true grace in the way he plays the guitar. There’s an undeniably warm glow and generous spirit that floats through the aura & atmosphere of “Back Where We Belong” – just about as inviting as music can ever be. And I think what I loved in particular about this first tune, was that, its biggest moments certainly come across remarkably well, but listen to how amazing the tiniest, most humble moments sound as well – Elmo’s found multiple ways of captivating us all throughout this song, and he’ll go on to reveal several more throughout the album as he shifts into “A Dream” next and the rest of the set to follow.
“A Dream” makes use of curious emotions and a humble, expressive lead melody to reveal them. Like the dreams that we all have ourselves, this song wanders blissfully through a whole set of beautifully mixed emotions and projects imagery in your mind as you follow this exceptional melody along. You’ll hear moments of straight-ahead mellowed-out happiness & true contentment, you’ll hear those moments where it sounds like there’s a choice to be made or some slight tension in the air of “A Dream” as it transitions through its thought-provoking structure. While those contrasting expressions might be rarer in this tune, they still add much value heading towards the third minute. That being said, it’s the true beauty found here on “A Dream” that the people will remember. It’s the kind of song that moves at such a stunning pace that you absorb every note…like, if I had my choice as to what song I got to choose to float on a raft slowly down a river to on a hot & sunny summer day, this would be the one. If Elmo’s intention was to relax us, “A Dream” is a perfect example of how close to the mark he’s gotten.
What makes me smile personally, are tracks like “Kindness” – instrumental tunes that end up sounding exactly to what their title implies. I know, I know, I know…you’re thinking, ‘yeah, but Jer @ SBS, you can’t HEAR kindness’ – and I’d probably challenge you otherwise. Have a listen to “Kindness” by Elmo and just SEE if that’s not the sound of “Kindness” you’d associate in your mind – because it might just be! I love the relationship between the layers of the guitar here…and this is what I mean by how this song SOUNDS like what “Kindness” is really all about – I might be going way far down the rabbit-hole here in search of a meaning, but this is what I hear… To me, the nearly downtrodden melody of the rhythm guitar in the background isn’t necessarily so much sad…it’s just kind of looking for a friend to cheer him up or hang out for a while, which is where the beautifully expressive and enthusiastic lead guitar comes in, displaying a ton of audio acrobatics, just like how your best friend would do whatever it takes to make you smile & pull you out of a bad or sad mood. So to me, it was like you could hear a similar relationship between these two guitar parts…and together, they display how important both these sets of our emotions, happy & sad, can actually complement each other and find harmony between them. I’d say it was potentially coincidental…but I highly doubt it; Karjalainen really thinks through his material and how to get the most out of the idea, emotion, sound, and experience – I felt like he nailed it on “Kindness” & created a genuine moment of sincerity that connects right to the heart.
“A Moment” is an excellent example of professional restraint when it comes to the composition. Elmo keeps in only what’s most important here, what I believe is only two layers at max, and lets those notes ring out gorgeously into the air without over-filling this melody by a single note. I have the feeling that those ‘mistakes’ that he was referring to finding on this album are more like the ‘quirks’ you’ll find in moments like where you can hear his fingers attach to a string maybe a slight fraction longer than he’d want as he pulls off while playing, but I mean…I dunno, again, I’d side with how he felt about how it adds to the organic nature of the overall experience. Songs like “A Moment” have that similar magic to “Kindness” in that it sounds like “A Moment” – we FEEL like we’re right there, watching this acoustic virtuoso weave his melody, ideas, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, so expertly through his guitar. It sounds like reflection; it sounds like triumph at times, and wonderfully accepting & warm at others – like many of the tunes you’ll find on this record, there’s an exceptional balance of the atmosphere & theme; this is “A Moment” you’ll want to continue to last…and in many ways it does. Like I said, this entire album ends up playing like one massively melodic and stunning experience from beginning to end; “A Moment” is just that…a piece, a fraction, a tiny, isolated, intimate, and humble slice of Elmo’s record.
Even in the darker melodies, like on “Sorrow,” Karjalainen has found incredible ways of still making these moments filled with intensity, yet as relaxing, chill, and serene as he’s intended them to be. I couldn’t take my ears off of the sound of “Sorrow” – I know I’m more naturally attracted to more downtrodden emotions, which this tune is full of for sure, but it’s also got that empowered spirit of hope that comes radiating through the progression of this song’s structure that really hits home. These tiny fragments of light are similar to like how we found that one defining moment of tension in “A Dream” – it’s just a small part of the overall tune, but highly effective and it stands-out when you hear these parts come up. “Sorrow” however, is just loaded with brilliantly tense melody and a slightly mysterious sound that invades the atmosphere…it’s a highlight example of how an artist/musician like Elmo can speak to you through his music – each note is like a word & you want to hear every one of’em.
In some ways, you could probably argue that there’s even more sadness to be found on “So Far Away” following “Sorrow.” Definitely ain’t no doubt about the stunning performance that Elmo puts into this tune, using the space surrounding him perfectly, allowing these powerfully emotional notes to soar into the distance while he plays on. There’s a forlorn longing in the sound of much of “So Far Away,” the entire song seems like it’s a distant memory and mimics that feeling with the slight reverb in the mix adding that additional space. “So Far Away” goes on a decent sized voyage over six plus-minutes; it’ll make stops in sorrow-filled sound and spontaneously joyous moments as well, all the while being relentlessly entertained by the passionate lead guitar roaming through the frets beautifully or being held captive in the moment while Elmo’s notes float into the atmosphere surrounding him. He’s done another exceptional job of displaying a true balance of emotions on the plate of this song like a well-prepped meal that has everything your body needs & all the vitamins for the day – and when it comes to “So Far Away” in particular, it’s not just the amazing songwriting & performance that’ll impress, but definitely the mix as well – I love how this song sounds.
There’s a really good chance that the longest tune on this record ended up being my favorite – the range of sounds & techniques applied to “A Cooling Shade” prove just how proficient and smart Elmo is with his writing & musicianship. He’ll bring in some organ sounds in the background of this song as well to complement this vibe, which added a really nice touch & warmth to this track. The harmonics and main melody he’s working with are another captivating combination revealed on Back Where We Belong, and the instrumentation is second to none. Listen to moments like the tangent he’ll go on just past the three minute mark and try to tell me that’s not breathtaking! The man is such a remarkable and noteworthy talent when it comes to his capabilities, and through his own dedicated efforts to playing guitar and massively high standards and expectations of himself, you can guarantee that each of these songs are extremely well-thought out and all contain amazing ideas. Moments like around the 5:15-5:40 mark of “A Cooling Shade” though…I mean c’mon people! Listening to how Elmo can transition sound & melody is a serious treat for the ears and he gives you a fantastic example of why that is at that moment on “A Cooling Shade.” He’s got music that speaks to the soul all over this album…and this song is still a real highlight…I think Karjalainen found a wonderful structure in the writing of this tune that brings the best of his own technique & abilities to the surface for all to hear, with innovative ideas in the movement and parts of this song that keep our heads just as interested and invested as our hearts.
What I loved about Back Where We Belong is that it’s so stunningly cohesive, it really is a true case of if you like one song, you WILL like them all. Or love them, like I do, that’s fair too. The delicate opening of a song like “Waves” sets your mind at ease, adrift on the sweet melody provided by Elmo’s guitar, allowing your mind to wander wherever it will go as the gentle “Waves” of acoustic guitar wash over you. It’d be impossible to argue that what you’ll hear is anything but consistently pleasant sound – that’s what you’ll get throughout this record and it’s certainly true of “Waves.” It flows along fluidly, it’s filled with a bold mix of technique & tone – a real signature staple of Elmo’s music no matter what kind of guitar he’s holding at the time – “Waves” is anchored by a weighty sound that creeps in and provides levity to the surrounding brightness…and towards the final moments, it’s like we all slip under the surface of the “Waves” for a moment, right before we all break through to the sunshine at the very end.
Again, even in the darkest moments, he succeeds in creating a relaxing & enticing sound that’s universally accessible, like he does with “Shadows.” Likely the tune that makes the largest departure into the deep, once more, he’ll transition this entire song and shift it towards the light around the two-minute mark, roaming through an inspired section of musicianship that will eventually start to feel those “Shadows” looming again as he plays on. The darkness invades the light and casts “Shadows” on the more hopeful sounds you’ll hear battling for dominance within this idea – that remarkable balance in Elmo’s ideas, concepts, and execution reaches noteworthy heights here in the audible struggle that takes place within the righteous battle for control. Almost like he’s recreated the battle between good versus evil here within this one haunting acoustic experience – “Shadows” comes out uniquely entertaining in comparison to the rest of the tunes on this record and possesses its own distinct vibe for the most part – it’s those threads of hopeful melody that tie it in so well with the rest of the record.
In terms of his objective…the mission that he ended up being on after examining the songs he’d written and had recorded…that desire to achieve an album filled with relaxing sound, might not be any better represented than it is by “April Sun” – and I’ll tell ya why that is. Quite often, once I’m familiar enough with the flow of a record as a whole, I’ll allow individual songs to repeat while I’m writing about them. When it came to “April Sun,” if I was actually paying attention to the clock below, I’m sure I must have been writing about a single sentence every fifteen minutes or so, maybe even longer. I could get so lost within the gentle sound & melody of this tune that I wouldn’t even realize I should probably find my way out somehow to continue on with the review! I’d just sit there, suspended by the magic of the moment & music created by Elmo, captivated by the beautiful way that “April Sun” rises and falls so sweetly. Some of the best songs we’ll ever hear on this planet find a way to use the simplest of melodies. I loved that, for all the tremendous skill & talent we know Karjalainen has as a player, he shows immaculate restraint here and serves the song and the emotion it has in the music perfectly by keeping the guitar relegated to precisely what’s needed to translating the feeling of “April Sun” impeccably, without a single unnecessary note or anything else at all in the way. Just pure raw beauty…that’s “April Sun.”
“Peace” sets Elmo on an excellent path, one that’ll include a range of tones that’ll take this tune through progressively melodic terrain, with a slight blues twinge to it at times as well. Very slight really…it’s perhaps another way of referring to the grounded & thought-provoking feeling that comes along with “Peace” – like acceptance, in musical form. Comfort in the knowledge that, not everything’s gonna be good, not everything’s going to be bad – that there’s balance in the universe, like he’s displayed through his songs all throughout this album…and there’s real “Peace” in coming to terms with that. It’s hard to say if this particular tune might be one of the ones with musically idiosyncratic spots he hears that could be done better or not…it’s tougher to tell with how the notes & patterns of this song interact to call it one way or the other, but again, any slight imperfections would be exactly that – slight at best. And just like acceptance, just like the “Peace” that comes along with it – these slight flaws that you might find are like those on a diamond – part of what gives it the beauty and character it needs to stand-out. Again, it’s hard to say for sure…all I hear is gold personally when it comes to “Peace” and certainly, upon this entire record – Elmo will always be his harshest critic – to the rest of us, he’ll always be superhuman.
Magnifying the beauty found throughout this record one last time, the gentle sound of “Promise” ends this whole experience as delicately & perfectly as you’d hope. Not even remotely kidding when I tell ya I could listen to Elmo play for days & days on end – songs like “Promise” that reveal the sincerity & passion in the way he plays, even in the most subtle & chilled-out melodies…it’s just nothing short of incredible, always. He’ll bring in the organ once more to fill in the final moments of “Promise” will a bit more sound…but Elmo’s proven plenty throughout this album that all he needs is his guitar to truly captivate our hearts & minds. I like the ending, but I love the beginning…it almost seemed like the more innocent and spare the sound was on “Promise” that the more the heart in this tune came out shining for us all to witness. Is it the magnificent, brilliant, amazing, stupendous, incredible, gigantic finale you’d find at the end of many records? Heck no! And that’s not what Back Where We Belong called for. What this album needed from Elmo all the way through, is exactly what it got, which is stunning clarity, remarkable songwriting, subtle melody & charm, and unbelievable consistency existing between each and every moment, right through to the very end.
Every one of these songs were beautiful.
This entire experience, was beautiful.
Find out more about Elmo Karjalainen by visiting his official page at: https://www.elmojk.com