Transcending Novelty-Act Status
The Wedding Present were the big British indie band of the late ‘80s, apparently, but I have never heard any of their records. That’s the disclaimer you need if you’re a huge Weddoe-fanatic and you get offended by my not talking about how wonderful they were in this review.
If you’ve never heard of the Wedding Present or the Ukrainians, you’re now wondering why I needed to make that disclaimer. The reason is that the Ukrainians started out as a lark for the Wedding Present. Guitarist Peter Solowka had his bandmates play some of his ancestors’ folksongs in a rock/folk/punk context. They sounded pretty great, so they recorded a few EPs, featuring a dude called The “Legendary” Len Liggins on vocals (he’s not technically Ukrainian himself, but he studied the language and he had the attitude). John Peel loved them and played the hell out of them on the BBC. Soon, Solowka decided to leave the Wedding Present to form his own band devoted to this music, and the Ukrainians were born.
The Ukrainians recorded a few records in the ‘90s, including one EP devoted entirely to the music of the Smiths (“Meat Is Murder” was now fully Ukrainianized as “M’Yaso-Mbivstvo”) . But after their best and most ambitious disc, 1996’s Kultura, they pretty much disappeared. I have no idea why—maybe they all got good jobs, or maybe the whole let’s-play-folk-music-as-if-it-were-punk-and-vice-versa thing wore thin, or something. But then, last year, Drink to My Horse!, a live compilation album, appeared. And now Respublika appears. The Ukrainians are, it appears, back . . . but can they get past their novelty-band status?
Well, yes. This record consists of 13 tracks. Ten of them are traditional Ukrainian tunes, one is an original, and two are Sex Pistols covers done as ethno-core. (I just made that term up. Use it.) These latter two are going to get all the attention, so let’s deal with them first. “Anarkhiya” is, of course, “Anarchy in the UK”, and it’s done just like you figure it would be. A short a cappella intro, and then boom right into the song itself, with electric mandolin riffs, a driving rhythm section (courtesy of Allan Martin’s bass and a person named Woody on drums), and Liggins’ rough croon of the translated lyrics with “yi yi yi yiiiii” background chants. Okay, so maybe that’s not the way you figured it would be, especially when they go into a prog-trumpet break about halfway through that sounds like an Adrian Belew solo off Lone Rhino. But it’s fresh and fun and, to my ears, a lot easier to listen to than the original. “But the whole point of the original was that it was supposed to be tough to listen to!” Exactly—I’m part of that group that thinks that the Sex Pistols were a great idea but only an okay band who made crap singles when they could have been so much better. So now I have a good version of “Anarchy in the U.K.” for myself . . . in Ukrainian.
The cover of “Pretty Vacant” (here called “Tsilkom Vakantnyy”) is even more inventive, combining two different mandolin lines with Michael L. B. West’s rawk guitar line to form a real new wave raveup. This could be the lost Eastern European version of the Knack or Cheap Trick or those other bands I love so much. When everything drops down to just drums and call-and-response vocals, you get the same kind of charge that they want you to get—wow, what a great pop song! And the ending does that whole Ukrainians’ trick of turning into a speed-polka workout for its last minute, with the beat accelerating much faster than any beat has the right to (must be 465 bpm). When the song ends, you find that you’ve trashed the room you’re in and the police are coming. They should provide restraints or something.
But these covers are less interesting than the reworking and reinvention of old folk standards as modern unclassifiable tunes. I am unfamiliar with any of the originals, so don’t expect me to compare these versions with them. All I know is what I hear, and I like it. The disc kicks off with “Ty Zh Mene Pidmanula,” which means “You Deceived Me”, and it sounds like it. This is a classic screw-you song, with booming bass tones and Liggins’ angry snarl. And yeah, this one also turns into a Slavonic two-step after a couple of minutes, perfect for moshing. The third song, “Chervona Rozha Troyaka”, dispenses with the prelude and gets straight to the polka. Insanely fast, always on the verge of careening out of control, but with a strong enough melody and sense of itself to hold on. The booklet tells the incredibly complicated story (something about a man who orders his wife away but then regrets his decision), but the music tells a different story altogether, one about just kicking ass and worrying about what it all means later. If there is a disconnect between the original Ukrainian intent of the song and the Ukrainians’ incarnation, very few people in the world will be able to tell. If there doesn’t seem to be a center to it, who cares? It rocks!
This is the case with several of the songs on Respublika. They don’t appear to have any reason to exist but to sound great. The surf romp of “Oi Na Hori” is so joyously sloppy that there is no hint that it might be a Romany lament about missing a loved one who is far away—if you misplace the booklet, as I did, you wouldn’t know what it might be “about”. Does it really matter what a song is “about” if it slams and kicks? Hell no! The same goes for “Arkan”, a slamfest of incredible proportions that interposes softer folk workouts with some Husker Du-level metal punk jamming you won’t believe. It doesn’t even bother with lyrics other than the shouting of its title, which means “The Lasso”. Wedding dance much? Oh yeah, baby.
But some of this stuff is more introspective. “Horila Sosna” is a brooder of the first water, a melancholy piece about “the end of childhood and lost innocence” that actually sounds like that’s what it might be about, even when it shifts into power-ballad mode in the choruses. The lone original is the record’s true standout: “Srebrenica” is a furious denunciation of the Ukrainian troops that aided the Serbian massacres of 1995, slamming them for not living up to their country’s tradition. It’s a dirge, it’s a rock song, it’s a brand-new classic folk song, it’s a protest song . . . but it means something. It’s got anger and drama and indignation dripping from every note, and it resists the temptation to simply turn into a blistering workout. When those drums kick in, with the mandolins going and the guitar feedback and the whole band joining in well, you’ll see. It’s intense.
The Ukrainians are a fun band, and they have made a striking comeback with this record. They could also, as “Srebrenica” makes clear, be an important band. But whether or not they will is anyone’s guess, really. I’m looking forward to the next record to see for myself.