(All Album Reviews by Reginod)
One could say that Wigwam's history was basically divided into two broad periods. The earlier, first period was a time when keyboardist/vocalist Jukka Gustavson's progressive compositional muse heavily influenced the band's direction; the later period was characterized by vocalist Jim Pembroke's partnership with guitarist Pekka Rechardt. Their collaborations produced lyrically intelligent, Beatles-influenced rock songs with nods to progressive, psych and folk.
Fast-forward to the present: at this point a third period should be duly considered. Pembroke and Rechardt reformed Wigwam in the early 1990s, and the band subsequently released three studio albums. The signature elements of their sound were still intact, but Pembroke's voice had matured into a deep quasi-growl. The progressive and psych elements were diminished, replaced with a roots-rock element more akin to the music of Bob Dylan or Van Morrison.
An odd album out in Wigwam's convoluted history is 1977's Dark Album. For fifteen years it was the band's "final" album, before their reformation. I would have to argue in retrospect that it was the link between their second and third periods.
Regrettably, both Nuclear Nightclub (1975) and The Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose (1976) failed to successfully heighten the band's international standing, and Wigwam was subsequently dropped by the widely distributed Virgin Records label. Yet the band still had a home on Finland's Love Records, which released Dark Album, the third studio effort of the Pembroke-Rechardt era.
From the beginning, something was different. Pembroke's "Oh Marlene" was partly a tongue-in-cheek stab at old-timey blues rock, and perhaps would have been a better fit on one of the composer's quirky solo albums, if not on one of the latter-day Wigwam CDs. Ironically, none other than Jukka Gustavson showed up to play organ on the track, as well as on the memorable "Silver Jubilee," whereupon his welcome and substantial presence warmly replaced Rechardt's usual guitar constructions.
Adding to the unique flavor of Dark Album was another Wigwam alumnus; Mats Hulden was the group's original bassist, and he wrote the lyrics for Rechardt's composition "The Item Is The Totem." It came closer to any other track on the album to capturing the somewhat spacey vibe of the bands' previous two releases, and was punctuated by Rechardt's signature, searing soloing.
There were always at least a few "sublime" tracks on Wigwam's albums; on Dark Album that honor would have to go to "Cheap Evening Return." Another richly constructed Rechardt composition; it was rooted in the cloudy-sky pathos of old Northern European folk tradition. Pembroke wrote the lyrics, typical of his considerable gifts in that capacity: "Oh and the laundry lines with pants that dance/ shirts flying in the careless breeze/ overgrown garden-house, glass, doctor, leaves/ falling from the trees/ All merging into one/ as lemmings on the run/ perhaps should be somewhere else, there again/ Slithering down the sky was candy-floss/ the child had tossed it up against the window-pane."
Side two opens with "Horace's Aborted Rip-off Scheme," in which a sardonic Pembroke delivers a rapid-fire, quasi-rap narration as much he actually sings. In that regard it might bring to mind some of the tracks from Wigwam's output of the 1990s and 2000s; compare "Talking Brought Me Here" or "Absalom" from 1993's Light Ages. Likewise, the decidedly heavy "The Vegetable Rumble," with its punkish vocal delivery and Thin Lizzy-like riffing, could have translated well to the modern version of Wigwam.
At 6:24, "The Big Farewell" is the album's longest track, and a definite highlight, despite a somewhat low-key approach. It contains more of Rechardt's solo-weaving and some hypnotic fretboard harmonics. Pembroke's straightforward "Helsinki Nights" closes the album (and for fifteen years, the bands recording career as well) with some very colorful and descriptive lyrics: "You might find yourself out by the bay/ watching while the wild-geese play/ as the island ferry pulls away/ to show the people all the lights/ in those everlovin' Helsinki nights."
From an engineering standpoint, the sound of Dark Album is quite different than any of Wigwam's other releases. It seems a bit less polished than the previous two outings, and at times the recording teeters on over-modulation; Pembroke sounds as if he's singing from a deep well inside his microphone, especially noticeable on "Cheap Evening Return" and "The Vegetable Rumble." (A bit of trivia: none other than the widely-traveled Mick Glossop helped at the engineering console, although he apparently did not work on all the tracks.) The singer's voice had taken a turn toward the rough, gruff edges that would be fully on display more than a decade later. Overall, the quality of the production fits the album's title; it is a darker and more dense affair.
In the end, Dark Album has its place as a totally unique entry into Wigwam's discography. It unintentionally foreshadowed a future as yet undreamed, while drawing upon the band's fascinating and musically rich past. It is an easy album to gloss over; there are no immediately throttling pieces such as "Losing Hold," and the dramatic touches are more subdued. Its rewards reveal themselves quite slowly, which is perhaps its greatest allure. It is not for the impatient or quick to judge, nor would I recommend it as a starting point for new Wigwam listeners, but for the faithful, Dark Album is as essential an album as the group ever produced.