Precious Nostalgia: Jelly Groove, Children of the 90s, and Adam Beker

Children of the 90s (Kiev)

The project known as Children of the 90s is based in Kiev and prefer not to reveal its member's (or members') identity. Instead of dull, everyday information we find a series of cultural motifs and myths. As the band's name immediately suggests, this music is steeped in the childhood experiences of a prior decade. Although the artists tag their work as "experimental," "rock," and "electronica," there's a focus upon (or concern for) things past, rather than any empirical investigation of future promise. In short, what we discover is a series of backward glances cast upon a cherished era - and related considerations of how that past might remain relevant.

The issue of specific times and places worthy of celebration remains imprecise; the band's stage-name may be extraordinarily direct, but the cultural name-checking here takes place across a very broad playing field. Things begin simply enough: the opening track on a recent EP directly invokes the mid-90s tensions between Blur and Oasis in the UK music industry. Sound bites are taken from primetime news broadcasts, documenting the fisticuffs between northern and southern ensembles. Subsequent tracks then draw upon British rave culture of the same decade, but much of the video work done by this duo references French cinema of the '60s - and Asian martial arts films of the '70s.

Within that growing catalog, we also find some Timothy Leary references - again from the 1960s. Any assumptions of easy-going, even naive pop-nostalgia soon alter amid some very strange hues. Vocal samples borrowed from the middle-class culture of a healthy UK economy slowly move into a series of quotes that concern extremely hallucinogenic drugs from the other side of the Atlantic. Calendars, maps, and reality itself(!) are subjected to doubt. Pre-adult experience begins to look strange.

Children of the 90s: "Turn On! Tune In! Drop Out!"

In terms of sound quality, too, there's a concern here with recording techniques of times past that seems to ignore any clear-cut time schedule. Much of the band's output - at least until some 2011 acoustic tracks - endeavors to reproduce the lo-fi effects of aging technology. The warm, fuzzy sounds of antique synths are accurately conjured, together with the tape hiss and wobble of 80s' cassettes. Time's passage, as much as possible, is kept within a holding pattern by retrospection - but the tools used to do so appear to be failing. Memory is struggling to preserve itself - just as the artwork above speaks to childhood's worrying loss to societal "over exposure."

Lazy days came and set me free...

In fact, some of last year's songs by Children of the 90s spoke in direct praise of happy, careless indolence; in other words they celebrated a state free of pressing deadlines or demands. "Lazy days came and set me free..." The outside world, however, can only be dismissed for so long... In the light of these failing memories and/or media formats, the very ability of rhythmic, suggestive sound to conjure prior hopes and then repeat them - comfortingly or incessantly - will understandably have appeal. Sound itself does not fade, if it can be reproduced.

On that issue of how music might combat unidirectional, pragmatic, and often distressing experience, we might suggest the new glitch-hop from Lithuanian instrumentalist Adam (Adomas) Beker. A brief investigation of the comments left at his Soundcloud account shows how much his Vilnius audience takes pleasure from the lack of any "progressive" experimentation. Directionless flourish meets with greater praise: "[This is] sooo nice [an] ambience!" "I like [the] melodic noodling going on in this section." 

Adam Beker (Vilnius, Lithuania)

If, however, we were then looking for some kind of manifesto or specific worldview behind these aimless pleasantries, then Mr. Beker might not be the person to ask. He currently defines his career in the following, terse manner: "Adam Beker makes music." There's absolutely no more information forthcoming. Only an enigmatic smile.

Adam Beker makes music

Composition, as a result of this standoffish attitude, is offered to us as a process, not a goal. It is, therefore, more likely to draw upon the cyclical patterns of nostalgia than anything forward-looking. Memories will offer a pleasing balance between innovation and familiarity. Not surprisingly, though, publishing companies like to see a little more purpose...

Currently Beker operates through a Vilnius label - Stableface - run by UK emigre Mark Splinter. Six years' work have gone into this venture, leading to considerable commercial and technical investments, both in local venues and sound-systems. Mary Jane Hobbs has apparently been impressed by the results. Hoping now to advocate Lithuanian music to Western audiences, Splinter has taken Beker and other promising artists under his arm. For inspiration in his task, Splinter often employs the Vilnius TV tower in his artwork as a symbol of hope. It was in that tower, of course, that Soviet troops tried to gain control over local media in the last few months of the Soviet Union.

On that dramatic note, we leave the history of 90s' Britpop behind - among Kievan anglophiles - and recall instead Eastern Europe during the same years. The symbolism of that decade changes rapidly. As a time of enormous romance and promise for Baltic nations, the 1990s cast a long shadow over the bureaucratic or banking dilemmas of today. Romantic memories of almost inconceivable civic promise now seem squandered in the grey, dusty corridors of European diplomacy. Not wanting to move "forward" (any more) seems an understandable response to disappointing events of the last twenty years.

Adam Beker: "Koko" (2012)

Nonetheless, with all his accrued energy, optimism, and commitment, Mr. Splinter turns to the new Beker tracks. This fledgling musician is praised as a "young talent with a sparkling, playful hip-hop sound. He has just released his debut EP on Stableface - 'Koko' - and hopefully[!] he'll be releasing much more." Whether or not a goal-oriented work ethic will be forthcoming from "playful noodlers" remains unclear. Retrospection and roundabout activity seem to hold greater appeal...

One could argue that glitch- or hip-hop patterns by their very nature are a combination of almost hypnotic repetition and what we might call "non-concrete" variations: the skips and blips of improvised turntablism. The former hopes to build an introspective calm through things familiar, whereas the latter is the embodiment of endless alteration. The anxious workings of a wholly unpredictable future are never engaged. These wary attitudes towards things unknown may, arguably, have been instilled by past experience - and that brings us to a third artist, from nearby streets.

A sparkling, playful hip-hop sound

One of the best expressions of alluring - and calming - nostalgia comes this week from Belarus. More specifically, a charming EP ("J.G.") has just been published by Jelly Groove, which is the collective stage-name of Lithuanian native Dmitriy Luka (aka L420), and his colleagues DJ Rock, Man of Jungle - and Dmitrii Chaikin. (They may be imaginary friends...) Luka's story is especially telling. Not long ago he moved from Vilnius to the Belarusian town of Babruysk. Vilnius dates back to the fourteenth century and is home to maybe 900,000 people; Babruysk is one quarter of that size and traces its origins back to the Stone Age.

From these storied quarters we hear the witty, antique "noodling" of Jelly Groove - for what may be locally specific reasons. 

Jelly Groove (Babruysk and Vilnius): "J.G." (2012)

These musicians use the same terse promotional phrasing as Beker: just as he refuses to elaborate on his compositional intent or career plans, so the members of Jelly Groove title the five tracks of their new EP with nothing more than a series of digits. There's no overarching concept or evident narrative: progression is replaced by turntablism, with beats that are endlessly stopped, reversed, and reconsidered. 

As suggested, a little local context may explain things - moving further still into the past. Although Babruysk grew swiftly over the centuries thanks to trading opportunities, those same commercial developments would also make the town appealing to invading armies. At the close of the 18th century, for example, the region was violently subsumed into the Russian Empire. Within twenty years, Napoleon's forces would come storming through. Decades of reconstruction after those wars would be largely ruined (again) by a major fire in 1902...

World Wars I and II would, of course, invite even greater destruction, especially because Babruysk had a very large Jewish population. Almost three-quarters of residents, in fact, perished between 1939 and 1943. 

A move from urban centers such as Vilnius to provincial towns like Babruysk may grant a pleasing sense of almost timeless calm: older buildings and winding streets seem greater testament to familial routine than modern corporate structures. A little investigation into the prior centuries of Babruysk, however, suggests why local residents would be very fearful of change or "progressive" visitors. Several buildings in Jelly Groove's hometown (below) show clearly the awful effort than once went into defending private, peaceful existence. Short-term nostalgia - or at least consoling repetition within the framework of one's biography - has much appeal in some locations.

Remains of the Babruysk Fortress, once used to keep Napoleon at bay - and then claimed by German forces in WWII. They turned the buildings into a concentration camp.

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