Electric without the electricity

Truth be told, Värttinä was more interesting when they went electric.

In the mid-90s, the Finnish folk collective recorded Aitara and Kokko, two albums in which the group augmented its already souped up instrumentation with a rock rhythm section. The rock musicians kept up with the band, but they (thankfully) never took over.

Starting with 1998’s Vihma, Värttinä returned to a more acoustic sound, and on 2000’s Illmartar, they explored their introspective side.

Iki, Värttinä’s 10th album, finds the group entrenched in its acoustic trappings, but it’s recaptured the spirit of its plugged-in diversions.

Front and center, of course, reigns the vocal triumvirate of Mari Kaasinen, Susan Aho and Johanna Virtanen. The versatile trio can deliver poignancy (“Tuulen Tuto”) or spit-fire virtuosity (“Nahkaruoska”) with equal aplomb.

The three woman are clearly the group’s central focus, as demonstrated on the Trio Bulgarka-like “Potran Korean”, and the album’s two-part framing tracks, “Syyllinen”. That doesn’t mean their six-piece backing band is no slouch.

On “Tauti”, bassist Hannu Rantanen and drummer Jaakko Lukkarinen navigate a thorny rhythmic mine field, while managing to infuse the track with a distinct rock feel.

On “Morsian” — a clear vocal showcase if there were any — accordian player Marrku Lepistö manages to comment on the singers’ melodies with his own flourishes.

Kaasinen and company get out of the way for “Vihi”, an instrumental track which shows why Celtic label Green Linnet was interested in the group long ago and far away.

There isn’t much else that can be said of the singers that hasn’t already been said. Their eastern European harmonies remain bittersweet and compelling. Thankfully, they’ve moved away from applying too many effects processors to their voices. They don’t need that kind of “help”.

While Vihma and Illmartar may have found Värttinä at its most sonically adventurous, Iki harkens back to the energy and confidence of its mid-90s work. To put it simply, it’s some the band’s catchiest work in a while.

It’s nice to see Värttinä getting back to getting down. It’s even nicer to know they don’t need to plug in to do so.