No Ordinary Love: Brunettes Shoot Blondes, Jack Wood, and "Girls on Fire"

Brunettes Shoot Blondes (Kryvyi Rih/Kiev)

One of Slavdom's most remarkable YouTube successes of late has come from a Ukrainian outfit, Brunettes Shoot Blondes. The band, currently based in Kiev, ingeniously used a small collection of smartphones in order to create a synchronized, real-time clip in which animated characters appear to walk from one screen to another. Current viewing figures would suggest that the video, entitled "Knock Knock," will garner seven million hits in the near future. Despite such successes, though, the band's promo-materials still report with disarming modesty that: "We are working on a debut album and looking for a record label."

Our first reaction was: 'Um... what's happening?!' (Brunettes Shoot Blondes)

When we first encountered the group a few years ago, their line-up was a little different. Today the team-sheet consists of Andrew Kovalov (guitar/vocals), Roman Sobol (drums), Igor Sidash (keyboards), and Yuriy Vodolazhskiy (bass). At the time of that initial visit, Brunettes Shoot Blondes declared an intention to "conquer anything that's conquerable!" From the outset, therefore, these Ukrainian artists were pondering both the pros and cons of fame - should it even transpire. "Being independent means that, musically speaking, things are obviously easy. Nobody's telling you what to do! But, on the other hand, it's really tough for independent outfits to break through [in Russia and Ukraine]. The best thing would be some kind of golden mean, a balance..." 

Despite any connections to Kiev, Brunettes Shoot Blondes obviously maintain productive and proud ties with their hometown of Kryvyi Rih. As a major industrial center for Ukraine, the city is full of iron works and sprawling mines - but not performance venues. The impulse to move on must occasionally be strong. And yet four local boys remain nonplussed whenever folks from the Big City do come calling; breaking out of a local bubble is never easy. "We never expected our video to have such an impact. Well-known news and music outlets contacted us with questions about the technical and design aspects of 'Knock Knock.' Our first reaction was: 'Um... what's happening?!" 

Things have now moved even further from home, since the success of "Knock Knock" eventually led to an offer of sponsorship from automobile company Opel, who funded the band's subsequent video,"Bittersweet." On even more distant shores, Billboard magazine then featured a small article on the work of Brunettes Shoot Blondes. Matters began to snowball.

The Jack Wood (Tomsk/Moscow): "Stoned/Vice" (2015)

The sense of randomness or fickle fortune behind the career of Brunettes Shoot Blondes appears elsewhere. Some of the band members passed through a classical musical education: others did not. Academic training and amateurism compete for relevance, as do planning and mere hope. Frontman Andrew Kovalov, by way of illustration, graduated from Kiev's Academy of Culture, initially as a full-time student and then by correspondence or online. "If, for example, you want to be a drummer, you don't really need to attend [or pay for] courses on choral performance and conducting." Better to learn the basics and then let chance play its hand, especially if dreams are unlikely to come true.

We just live where we can - and however we can (The Jack Wood)

Roman Sobol, in a more overtly amateur fashion, learned to play the guitar through a friend of his father. "Then I picked up the drums myself. I used to play in some pretty heavy-duty outfits: I mean hardcore or metal-core... Gradually, however, I moved over to gentler styles." Hence, no doubt, the preferences among Brunettes Shoot Blondes for everything from Beyonce or Katy Perry to Metallica. Multiple styles reflect shifting attention(s) to a range of professional options. Just in case.

The Tomsk garage and hardcore outfit The Jack Wood are similarly caught between two addresses and career trajectories: their Siberian hometown and Moscow. "Russia is full of little towns and really talented people. The thing is, however, that their inhabitants might invent all kinds of cool stuff, but it never really comes to fruition. Therefore we decided to make a move [to the capital], almost for the sake of a joke. But now we're in this for real. Moscow is home to more people with influence - and that's why so many folks move here. If your dream is just to lie all evening on your gut in front of the TV... then a transition to Moscow will be absolutely pointless. You simply won't survive." 

Given that so many people find Moscow so unforgiving and/or unmanageable, the members of The Jack Wood speak (in semi-serious tones) of self-destructive hedonism as a better option.

The Jack Wood 

"You might try sometimes to fit into society's pre-established patterns, but nothing goes right. Consequently, you find yourself bidding farewell to that [normal, dull] life in every song you write. Of course, we do have friends who've known us for ages and understand our behavior perfectly well. But people who see us for the first time just stare — with wide open eyes. They think there's something genuinely wrong with us... Maybe it's time for us to write a book about all the things that happen to us [on the road and on stage]. That'll give the band something to talk about in our old age. We'll smile at it all, without our teeth, while holding up our guitarist's liver in one hand." Planning is a rare luxury.

The provinces are home to loads of groups that make f***ing brilliant music, yet stew in their own juices (The Jack Wood)

In some recent conversations, The Jack Wood have suggested that only provincial bands will produce this nervous, spontaneous soundscape or outlook, since they're full of dreams - yet probably unable to realize them. "The provinces are home to loads of groups that make f***ing brilliant music, yet they continue to stew in their own juices."

Moscow will bring different pressures. "There comes a certain time when, for example, you're no longer twenty years old. Previously you'd probably be thinking: 'OK, I can keep p*ssing around like this for a few more years, and then I'll make some proper career plans.' The years soon fly by, however, and suddenly you realize it's time to get a grip or raise a family, perhaps. Everything is a matter of time. From the outside, it may look as if we've changed - but it's more an issue of battle scars. Everybody in Tomsk is waiting for Moscow to break us down, or maybe we'll become a purely commercial outfit [and people at home can gloat]. After, our material well-being unavoidably comes to mind at least once a day...This whole city is hung up on financial issues... you can't help but think about those things. And I'm haunted by the occasional desire to eat normally!"

Another band member paraphrases the same dilemma. "In Tomsk you can certainly exist on a small amount of money, but here you need a decent sum simply in order to exist. Nonetheless, we won't ever change our priorities. Now, as before, we just live where we can - and however we can."

Moscow's Glintshake with Katya Shilonosova (aka NV)

Soon the tone worsens: "People are always asking me why The Jack Wood doesn't just sign a contract with some record producer or other, make lots of money, and then do what we really want? Sure, that might sound simple, logical, and even easy, damn it! But if you consider the situation closely and from a more pragmatic point of view, then things are very different. Once you make a decision like that [to sell out] and you have indeed made enough money to do what you want... then, in actual fact you'll no longer want or need anything. Plus you'll have to suffer so much sh*t on the way [to fame and fortune]. Personally I've always thought that people who make those concessions need to spend their hard-earned cash on really serious drugs, simply in order to hide from their growing sense of shame."

Tomsk is a small town, full of envy...

A return home to the provinces never actually seems a viable option - and so one is stuck between an unpromising past and uncertain future. "If you agree to less [and indeed go home], then that's exactly what you'll get. Tomsk is a kind of bog or swamp. It's a small town, full of envy. I don't think people there are living especially happily. And as soon as somebody plays a Moscow show, they're always going to be considered a conceited bastard."

In an attempt to foster a greater sense of stability or teamwork upon unstable waters, four Moscow projects recently joined forces to make the "Girls on Fire EP." As that title suggests, these same four outfits are all fronted by young women.

We could start with  Glintshake. Using the recognized talents of Evgenii Gorbunov (NRKTK/Stoned Boys) and vocalist Katya Shilonosova (aka NV), the band also involves Dima Midborn (ex-Tesla Boy) and - sometimes - drummer Sergei Ledovski, who's in the process of emigrating to the US. That list could easily grow, since the biographies of all involved also lead us to the team-sheets of Trud and MAKE. The result, allegedly, is "driving punk in a '90s style." There's a widespread desire to make noise.

Naadya and front-woman Nadya Gritskevich

In interviews the band has sometimes touched upon the theme of ineffectiveness, in other words whether or not their craft actually does anything. "You could even call Glintshake's songs senseless. The basic goal of our music is getting the atmosphere right. People need an opportunity to switch their head off... Lots of folks play in guitar bands today, but we get the feeling they're kinda embarrassed to share their energy with the public. It's as if they're scared to let rip - but we're not."  Cathartic chaos is rarely encountered, perhaps because of its uneasy proximity to themes of surrender. Both are forms of abandon.

A song about the fact everything's so unstable (Glintshake)

In contributing to the "Girls on Fire EP," Shilonosova explains the gist of her Russian-language track (Glintshake usually perform in English). "In some sense, my contribution is nothing at all. It's an expression of vagueness or absence, even. A song about the fact everything's so unstable - and that our shambolic existence will, sooner or later, vanish into a glorious, bottomless hole. The EP includes a Russian-language version of one of our English songs; the words don't really overlap much. I'm not sure that we'll do anything else in Russian. It's not for us to judge whether this experiment worked or not."

Songs of home offer little, if any, consolation. One's native tongue brings domestic issues to the fore.

And so Katya Shilonosova finds herself pondering the roots or basic rationale of this local outlook. "We're trying to better understand our own heritage of Russian music-making. So few people in this country pay attention to it. We want to establish our own opinions of the past and then offer something novel." Thus far a sense of ongoing instability endures at home; Shilonosova hopes one day both to know and name it.  And so, even though the "Girls on Fire EP" is designed to celebrate Women's Day on March 8, other issues hold sway. They have more to do with geography than gender. 

Joining Glintshake here is Nadya Gritskevich of the similarly named outfit Naadya. Her contribution is called "Kapkan" (tr. "Trap"). That single noun and the song it designates refer together "to the fact that so many people nowadays seem to be stuck within their [narrow] conceptions of the opposite sex." Playing then upon an English-language term from dance music, she jokes. "We want to free ourselves from all related stereotypes and make some 'trap' of our own instead!" 

Okudjav (Yekaterinburg) and Katya Pavlova

Gritskevich is likewise from a small town - and once upon a time moved far away to Moscow. More specifically, she is originally from Kogalym in Central Siberia. That settlement was only formed in the 1970s as a residential complex for oil workers; Kogalym was not even designated as a makeshift "town" by geographers until the following decade. Gritskevich transferred to the capital when still a teenager, in order to further her education. " I was roughly fifteen or sixteen at the time. My parents, of course, were very concerned: 'How can we possibly leave you alone in Moscow?' But things weren't that scary, because my older brother was already living in the capital." Neither home nor distant Moscow seemed safe or secure. 

If you take a closer look, you'll find more than youthful sentiment in these songs. There's sadness, too (Okudjav)

Two more outfits are on the EP. One of them - Okudjav - comes from Yekaterinburg: Vadik Korolev, Katya Pavlova, and Daniil Shaikhinurov. Those three names lead us to additional connections with PilarObe Dve, and Alpha-Beta, plus other bands from around the Urals.

The three members of Okudjav offer listeners a brief introductory sketch, since the project was only formed last year: "If you take a closer look, you'll find more than youthful sentiment in these songs. There's sadness, too, for example in the story of a cowboy who's suffering from a hangover. These are urban songs - or perhaps they're pop music designed for dancing. Whatever the case, these same compositions are not designed for huge clubs or, for that matter, for group sex. This is music for dancing on a bar table - with a lover beside you or a book in your hand."

Put differently, Okudjav's artless sound is supposed to evoke a small-scale, unpolished aesthetic that's prior to anything professional or widely marketable. Minorism and mistakes are both to be celebrated; they speak of normal, human experience and therefore become a strange form of comfort.

The band's song for "Girls on Fire," called "Machekha" (tr. "Stepmother"), was basically composed with a laptop on a flight from Vladivostok. The song's title, however, is taken perhaps from the widely known Soviet feature film of 1973, in which a stepmother and a young girl try - with considerable difficulty - to view each other as members of a single family. The likelihood of instability appears much greater than any immediate sense of home or charity, especially when a story is written nine time zones from Moscow and at 30,000 feet.

Yana Blinder

This use of Women's Day to discuss broader social issues also emerges in the fourth and final track, offered by singer-songwriter Yana Blinder. "My own song concerns the endlessly frustrating issue of how boys and girls socialize, which in turn causes many women [or mothers] a great deal of suffering. Put differently, this is a song about awful levels of jealousy and hurt, especially whenever young boys [dump somebody and] start dating someone new. There may have been a friendship [developing] here, which didn't grow into love, but nonetheless left a massive impact. Love for a friend can also be something precious."

And I'm falling...

Stability and longterm balance are only found, holds Blinder, in those rare instances when amour and friendship coincide. Looking to give this infrequent emotional state (or mere luck) a name, she turns to a well-known song from Sade, "No Ordinary Love" (1992). Hope lives a long way from home.  

Some of these outfits, such as The Jack Wood or Brunettes Shoot Blondes, speak of a civic instability that clearly divides the provinces from any Big City. The former location offers either a slow, "bog-like" existence or constant envy directed towards major population centers. When, however, somebody does indeed move to Moscow or another glitzy metropolis, any sense of unfulfilment at home soon becomes materialized. Small-town lacunae become a marked lack of cash. Neither location suffices or satisfies.

And then if we turn specifically to the "Girls on Fire EP," a nationally treasured holiday and celebration of romance is used by four projects to speak of more anxiety, either between two addresses or two people. A solution to these dilemmas perhaps lies far away, in another language and another tongue. And yet Yana Blinder's chosen benchmark for "true love" by Sade is, in fact, a tale of unfulfilled passion. The song's closing refrain is: "Keep trying for you/ Keep crying for you/ Keep flying for you/ And I'm falling..." Doubt wins the day and fantasy never quite manages to become fact.

Four evident fantasies: the "Girls on Fire EP" (March 9, 2015)

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