This St. Petersburg outfit, although now a trio (with Dima Zvezdin), is grounded in the work of Mikhail and Aleksandr Pletnev. That lineup is worth restating since these three men have, after a series of marvelous singles, managed to produce an impressive debut album, "Vsya Moya Radost'" (All My Joy). The Pletnev brothers were interviewed this week by the Moscow magazine Afisha in ways that help to contextualize some quiet, consistently acoustic songs. In fact, given the hushed nature of those eleven introspective tracks, a question was soon posed with regard to whether Ifwe has adopted a "Petersburg romance." Might we hear the influence of a windswept Baltic shoreline, free of human clamor?
Sure enough, Mikhail Pletnev remarked: "Local weather has probably left its mark." His brother agreed that the city is imbued with a certain "melancholy" caused both by the climate and the slow, "even" passage of time - as daily activities are usually swathed in that rain, fog, or snow. These songs, therefore, are unlikely to be colored by loud showiness. The world's most northerly city inclines its residents to lead a slow, studied, and often damp existence.
We're always in favor of a simple life
Ironically, for all that slight, yet enduring melancholy, the brothers have no desire to leave for the bright lights and hubbub of (drier) Moscow: "We're always in favor of a simple life. It seems to us that's a more natural way of living." This same celebration of modesty, if not quiet monotony, frequently leads with Ifwe to a validation of - or nostalgia for - childhood, a time when things were "simpler, easier, and happier."
Since one's biography is hardly likely to move backwards on a whim, Ifwe instead take consolation from the civic potential of social media: friends are available no matter what nastiness Mother Nature strews across a northern landscape. Given the widespread downtown of national economies in Europe and the simultaneous, contrary ability of Russians to enjoy a very wide circle of friends for mere pennies, it seems to the Pletnevs that the world has become a "kinder place." Loud social protest and/or avarice serve less and less purpose. As a result, a gentler, kinder form of music is needed for homebound, happy dreamers.
Ifwe (Mikhail Pletnev, left, and his brother Aleksandr)
There is, though, a flipside to on-stage introversion: creating a social impact can be tougher. Artistic movements are rarely launched from a bedroom. Quiet voices are less likely to be attended to. "We'd love to start some kind of local scene here - but it's so tough! Other people have the ambition to do that... Everybody probably wants to start a scene of some sort - out of nothing whatsoever. But compare St. Petersburg to any English town, say. Take Leeds, for example, and how many bands come from one place. St. Petersburg itself has five million residents, but..." Once again slowness and silence are uppermost.
Ultimately, Mikhail and Aleksandr attribute this gap between big numbers (i.e., many citizens) and minimal impact (few good bands) to a historical logic. "There are fixed stages in any kind of musical evolution. You can't just bypass several of the steps and be 'cool' all of a sudden." Individuals have to wait for history and society to catch up. "We've been through a generation that was swamped by Western culture [in the '90s and 2000s]- and everybody started to copy it. First of all, Russian musicians copied that Western stuff badly, then [after time] they did it with vague skill, and then - finally - the imitations were good. Eventually, though, we'll all get sick of copying stuff and write original music. But a set period of time has to pass first..."
Eventually, Russian artists will get sick of copying stuff and write original music (Ifwe)
Similar dreams and concerns are evident in the work of Nizhnii Novgorod quintet The Tairyfale. Despite the deliberate inversion of their name, they promise a musical form of betterment - or at least the tunes to accompany hope. The band's compositions are described as some kind of shelter from the rough and tumble of normal life: "There's room in this music for each and every mood - not to mention every loving soul." The stories left untold by a heartless society can be properly, successfully concluded in song. Melody mends the social fabric - with the kind of understated, minor narratives rarely heard in a land of pathos and fanfare.
The simplest goals are the most elusive, it seems. They also slip further into the past.
Music critic Artemiy Troitskiy has said kind things about The Tairyfale. He has remarked that front-woman Ksenia Mouse and her "excellent" voice remind him of songs from the Soviet musical "An Ordinary Miracle" (Obyknovennoe chudo). That feature, made in 1978 but still very popular today, tells of a bored magician who begins to create fairytales "backwards" in order to toy with the predictable formats of stories and spells. This, presumably, was the inspiration for the band's name.
And now there's a debut album to report, the title of which might be translated into English as: "If It Wasn't For You..." It continues the band's desire to "write kind music for kind people." The CD opens with a half-buried soundbite that can be traced back to The Family Guy animated series. It refers to something "as beautiful as an HBO minority fairytale." That dark sense of humor, mocking modern stories, puts genuine magic (and a happy ending) head-to-head with the cynical workings of media finance. From the outset we're reminded that simple joys are often hard to find - and that many stories do end badly.
Songs designed to brighten the darkest home
The new Tairyfale songs, placed together, are described optimistically by the group as "twelve tracks about love. These are songs designed to brighten the darkest home; they offer a little warmth and will help to rescue you from sadness, also." If we then turn to one of the Russian social networks used by The Tairyfale, a little more information is forthcoming. The musicians declare, this time to a better-known and local audience: "We've invested an unbelievable amount of effort and emotion in this album. We gave it everything we had. We argued, made up, and then rerecorded everything you hear."
The album is a testament to compromise and concord. The least complex (and most beneficial) goals appear to have been the trickiest, so to speak.
The Tairyfale with music critic Artemiy Troitskiy
Going in search of an even more elementary, self-evident ideal is Moscow guitarist Masha Teryaeva, usually a member of InWhite and whose solo endeavor has the strange, rural name of Dub i Prosto Derevo ("An Oak and Just a Tree"). The project was founded late last year, "in order to record some impressions about life's passing events - in sound." Brief and usually insignificant sensations were hopefully captured and given voice.
What results from the ability to amplify modest, transient experience is "gentle, multilayered instrumental music, built around a guitar. This is the perfect soundtrack for pondering nature, meeting a seaside sunrise, or for driving off in your car - over the horizon. This is the proper music for a basic, uncomplicated existence - the kind that so many Muscovites are missing."
The perfect soundtrack for pondering nature (Dub i Prosto Derevo)
Teryaeva, just as The Tairyfale, feels her solo and collaborative recordings to be philosophically connected to the traditions of Soviet cinema, "the kind that were long forgotten under countless copies of Western media. But now there's a new wave of music, one that responds to modern issues." The most pressing of those issues is also the most fundamental: leave the city and sit quietly in a field. The ability of Soviet lyrical cinema to hide from ideology can, thinks Teryaeva, now help equally browbeaten Moscow residents get away from the noise of shoptalk - and plan a trip to the country. The tools of erstwhile escapism orchestrate a new, physical escape from urban hassle. Dust off the vinyl and head for the country.
The same yearning for flight - and a general downscaling - informs the work of LosiKenguru, who are also from the capital. Founded by Pavel Levanov and Ivan Vakulenko, the band would eventually become a quartet, adding Fedor Malyshev and Aleksandr Michkov. Despite the addition of more colleagues, however, LosiKenguru's trademark sound would remain very quiet indeed.
Dub i Prosto Derevo (Moscow): Masha Teryaeva and studio help
The group's first songs were improvised on a simple guitar while Levanov and Vakulenko were still students - and that DIY, diminished scale has remained largely intact. In order to give themselves a working structure and turn tiny tunes into something of discernible size, LosiKenguru adopted a basic, yet fruitful work scheme. They agreed to compose and record one song per month. That eventually led to an album, now available for download: "Chernovik Etyudov" (A Sketchbook of Studies): each song reflects and concerns a different month.
Twelve of them constitute an entire year of small-scale impressions.
Soft, tender, and slightly sad forms of expression
The original pressing of the album was no more than 500 copies, which were given to "friends, relatives, and anybody interested." Grander plans were not considered - nor were they desired. Instead we find twelve tiny etchings of city life in "soft, tender, and slightly sad forms. Together they cohere like an artist's canvas. The mood of these tracks changes as we move through the year... They're all colored by a mix of touching, bluesy traditions and some folk motifs. You'll find songs of springtime love, summer passion, an autumnal farewell, and winter's yearning."
There's nothing more and nothing less - since those simple, elusive experiences are so rare in Moscow. The noiseless hunt continues for a modest happiness.