Esthetic Education: "With You"

Having recently reviewed the debut solo album by Louis Franck, it would be churlish of us not to mention the recent achievements of his band-mates in Kiev’s Esthetic Education.  Purveyors of Ukraine’s finest pop-rock, they’ve just released a new single - “With You” - on the heels of their latest album, “Werewolf.”

Esthetic Education – or “EE,” as the Slavic press refers to them – were formed in 2004 by ex-members fromOkean El’zy (Elza’s Ocean), Ukraine’s most esteemed modern rock band. If you’re wondering what that is on their new cover below, the band recently told the Russian press it’s a “metaphor for artistic transformation and creativity.”  The object of our attention here is how those transformations take place.

In the music business, Russia forms an overlapping trade zone with Ukraine and Belarus; it obviously maintains the biggest share of that marketplace, too.  Bands from those smaller countries dream of “making it big” internationally, but Moscow remains a logical and easier first step upwards in the general direction of fame and fortune. What we see with Esthetic Education, therefore, is the “creative transformation” of a band in the direction of Moscow – so that Russia can perhaps be bypassed.  Ukrainian and Belarusian groups need Moscow in order to ignore it.

The mixed heritage (Italian/Belgian/Scottish) of Louis Franck, together with his education in Moscow, initially helped to nudge EE towards success in Russia, where they’ve now become known as craftsmen of self-referential, very knowing pop, a style less commonly encountered among northern neighbors.

They’ve attracted big crowds in Moscow, too, together with large numbers of “bottles, lighters, and other objects” lobbed at them by peeved nationalists.  Reverse tensions are also sometimes encountered, when Ukrainian performers who sing in Russian (or garner fame in the north) suffer similar abuse at home, both verbally and physically.

Franck’s excellent English – both as lyricist and performer - makes the group a real contender for possible success overseas.  Hence the current oddity of being from Kiev, singing in English, and doing promo work in Russia: where’s the target audience?  At home they’ve long since been in heavy rotation on MTV, topping national charts for weeks at a time, and enjoying the endorsement of Ukraine’s music papers as “Discovery of the Year.” Domestic attendance figures at their concerts over the last two years have run close to a quarter of a million fans. Supporting Moby doesn’t hurt, either.

Efforts to extend the Russian fan base have included one moment of which the band is especially proud: video work conducted in the same Mosfil’m studio where Andrei Tarkovskii shot “Solaris.”  Russian print coverage of EE has come from numerous glossy magazines: ElleCosmopolitanRolling StoneAfishaTime Out, and others.

“Werewolf,” released a few months ago, was their third album-length project and a genuine milestone in the evolution of Slavic pop music.  Walking a thin line between artistry and archness, EE pile on melody after melody, squeezing multiple winks, nods, and detours into three minutes. En masse the band members claim to have grown up under the strange, combined sway of hip-hop, classical music, and Southern spirituals. It all helps to bump them off the straight and narrow. The question is now whether they’ll need (or want) a Russian audience if Western fame comes knocking.  EE’s lovingly-crafted recordings make them a bona fide candidate for industry interest in London or Los Angeles. The first band (post-Tatu) to enjoy that same interest will define Russia’s role as either a burgeoning, independent marketplace or stepping-stone.

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