The Darker Side of Folk: Marten Kuningas, Picnic, and Imandra Lake

Here we continue our overview of the wonderful Estonian label Seksound, focusing both upon today's bands and yesterday's context(s) in order to clarify a fairly complicated musical scene. The movement between these collectives can be quite rapid and - in a small cultural sphere - the distance between "independent" and mainstream songwriting might also be tantalizingly short. As a result, it makes sense to explain the relationship of these bands both to their forerunners and to today's national media. 

Given that goal, we should offer a few opening words on the singer Marten Kuningas, who has recently worked with a renowned collective from Tartu, Leegitsev Sidrun, on a Seksound album entitled "Laulev Revolutsioon." That phrase pulls us immediately from any international, homogenized pop aesthetic into the finer points of local history.

Translated into English, "Laulev Revolutsioon" means "Singing Revolution." It therefore invokes some events of the late 1980s, when mass singalongs began to take shape at the Tallinn Song Festival. Impromptu choral expression, unapproved by local authorities, started to look and sound like a new form of civil disobedience. Musical harmony, it soon transpired, could become a tool of social dissent, offering better metaphors of cohesion than anything the Soviets could produce. 

Prompted, to some degree, by the new democratic agenda of glasnost in Moscow, up to 300,000 Estonian citizens became involved in the joint performance of songs, anthems, and various rock compositions - all of which turned lyrical expression into a tool of (uncomfortably) free speech. Making their feelings of cohesion even clearer to bystanders, Estonians frequently took to holding hands as they sang.

Inspired by their own actions, locals began to ignore the social system offered to them by the Soviets. Most dramatically, this meant that young men started to avoid military service; their dedication was to friends and neighbors more than to the authorities. By the time Estonia was fully indepdendent in 1991, none of these protestors, amazingly, had been killed - even after armed Soviet troops had stormed the nation's TV center in the hope of reestablishing media control.

Today those same broadcast outlets employ the likes of Mr. Kuningas (below), who not only recorded the "Singing Revolution" album, but is now better known for his primetime TV slots - as both talent-show contestant and presenter. In other words, he currently hosts a chart show, "Estonia's Top 7." The distance from independent to "centralized" performance has been small indeed.

I'll try to sing the next song from the bottom of my heart. Honestly!

Nonetheless, those two realms are kept (politely) apart: just before he took on the responsibility of TV host, Kuningas gave an interview to the Estonian press in which he admitted to being frequently, if not constantly ironic. Both in the recording studio and on screen. The broad, suspiciously "inclusive" rhetoric of TV entertainment is held at arm's length. Local experience of such pushy registers has not been happy in the past. 

Marten Kuningas

In the same conversation, Kuningas also admitted that his favorite novels are Bulgakov's "Fatal Eggs" and Camus'"The Outsider" - both of which express a similar skepticism with regard to grand, centralized narratives of any sort, be they political or legal. What results is a certain wariness that he extends to talk of "major" stardom, too. Kuningas is very uneasy with discussions of his own status. He recently - though respectfully - declined the label of local "superstar," suggesting instead that such dizzy heights have only ever been scaled by "Jesus, Elvis, and Coca Cola." 

A dry, sardonic turn of phrase is never far away.

Those quips form another bridge between Kuningas' national renown and the often shy, indie-aesthetic of Seksound colleagues such as Picnic, founded in 2006. The band was originally a foursome of Rivo Järvsoo, Andres Soosaar, enigmatic "Annika," and vocalist Marju Taukar; that quartet, however, was very quickly reduced to a trio. Social relationships were complex. Most potted histories of Picnic develop from this point into a similarly winding, even baroque explanation of how all remaining members had emerged from the ashes of other, recently defunct collectives. The overriding impression is less of an "independent" band than of some group expression that emerges - briefly! - from a larger social arrangement, before descending once more into that productive melange.

Harmonies appear, cohere, and then return to a larger whole. There's no pretense towards proud forms of endurance. 

Picnic

First heard on a Seksound compilation album, Picnic would move on to a fully-fledged album, from which we take a few tracks: "Winter Honey." As that studio work increased, so did a sense of stylistic clarity. Picnic found themselves happy and willing champions of "'90s British shoegaze, full of flowing guitars, electronic beats - and other surprises!" Special thanks were expressed for the influential sounds of the Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and Chapterhouse.

Simultaneous enthusiasm, somewhat further from home, was audible for Icelandic outfits such as Mum and Sigur Ros - which was understandable both linguistically and politically. First of all, the ability of those bands to play upon a little-known (or imaginary!) language would certainly give hope to Baltic collectives; secondly, Iceland was the first nation to recognize Estonia's independence after the Singing Revolution.

This charm of a shoegazing heritage is just as clear with Imandra Lake, themselves born of another local ensemble, Pia Fraus (of whom we wrote yesterday). More specifically, Rein Fuks and Eve Komp (shown below) were once members of Pia Fraus and now embody what they call "noisy shoegaze that's full of reverb, yet tranquil and deep." It's a sound they sometimes attribute to "the darker side of folk music... it should not be listened to in haste."

The darker side of folk music... it should not be listened to in haste

Given what we know about the profound power of national, folk, or choral performance in Estonia, it's impossible not to draw connections between the intense introspection of Western shoegaze and its role as a social barometer in the Baltic. Any parallels between the rather distant, noncombative air of shoegaze and today's folk music, be it "dark" or even upbeat, will surely become a judgment passed upon social promise. In other words, under the admitted influence of Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and others, thoughts of civic development remain uppermost... yet wary.

A detached gaze persists.

Imandra Lake

Marten Kuningas' trademark irony has certainly kept him at a distance from loud, stentorian proclamations of any kind; the shoegazing style of Imandra Lake, whilst informed by the power of folk song, is unwilling to drag a communal heritage to the surface with great confidence. In neither case are these musicians keen on (or confident in) song as a socially pragmatic tool. Considering what decades of socialist music did to folksong - turning it into jingoistic rant - it's hard to embrace the same, pre-modern canon of working songs and their themes of consolation without a little trepidation. The oldest, most powerful traditions remain the hardest to celebrate: they've been mistreated so often in the past.

Songs for dancing alone in front of a mirror

The first recordings by Imandra Lake were well received by the Estonian press, who called the band's sound "fragile, wistful, and somewhat personal, too. As if everything was written especially for you." The result was deemed suitable for "dancing alone in front of a mirror."

Estonia set the bar impossibly high in the 1980s when the Singing Revolution showed what could be done with song as a form of social correction - and improvement. Among the members of today's generation, that same power is greatly respected, to the point where songwriting per se - be it for primetime TV or within a folk arena - is approached carefully.

Prior politics ruined folk song; local heroes then gave it an almost magical power. To open one's mouth and sing is, for an Estonian, a very big deal. The consequences can be equally dramatic. No wonder the compositions of Seksound's young performers are tinged with irony and introspection. They're both forms of emotional insurance, just in case a very important art form gets very little respect. And so new voices emerge from the backwoods - both quietly and carefully.

Audio

Marten Kuningas – Mees (with Leegitsev Sidrun)
Picnic – Shareware
Picnic – Too Fast
Marten Kuningas – Vabadus (with Leegitsev Sidrun)

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