Although Monsoon Sexy Season are based in Vilnius, the outfit's origins are in Belarus. The reasons for this transition to a neighboring land have been dual: education and employment. That vague positioning, from a geographic standpoint, suits the band rather well, in that its members perform easy-going narratives born of cafe culture - with no direct ties to any one tradition. The middle of the road, so to speak, could be anywhere. Structurally, we're told to expect "dreamy harmonies, thick basslines, smooth sensual vocals, and glittering percussive hooks that are to die for!"
Sensual vocals... and glittering percussive hooks
On the basis of that one sentence alone, we would be none the wiser as to its author's location. And indeed, extending this unhurried move outwards - across the map and away from specificity - MSS elsewhere define their aesthetic as "interwoven, energetic vibes that are taken from live instruments - of worldwide provenance - together with today's cool electronic sounds."
The two core members are Stepan Bitus and Tania Goroshko, supported by lyricist Sveta Piatakova. Bitus himself completed a classical education in Belarus, specializing in percussion; this took him in the early direction of jazz and - after a while - to the Minsk ensemble Drum Ecstasy. This was - and remains - an outfit that puts the world to good and noisy use. The musicians employ the following tools in their shows: electric saws, drills, CO2 fire extinguishers, barrels, car brake-discs, "and other industrial junk."
Through it all, Mr. Bitus maintains the calm exterior required of a lounge exponent.
Here the traveling began in earnest; tours were conducted around Russia, Ukraine, Holland, Germany, and the Baltics. Bitus would also work on music for some of Russia's biggest feature films of the last few years. Employment as a DJ in various nightclubs and fashion show management have both kept him close to Moscow, although endeavors in related fields (animation soundtracks, for example) also mean that his ties with Minsk are never completely severed.
He first encountered Ms. Goroshko when remixing a track for her own outfit, Tanin Jazz; that material, too, found its way to the silver screen over time... Also from Belarus and classically trained (as a conductor), Goroshko has been combining her own academic expertise with contemporary fields since 2002. The direction of her those efforts is - in her own words - always informed by "good taste and a passion for creative experimentation."
Dating, motherhood, sex, post-apocalyptic dystopia...
This spirit of adventure seems boldest of all in the CV of their lyricist Ms. Piatakova, who catalogs her thematic emphases as "pop culture, dating, motherhood, sex, post-apocalyptic dystopia, public toilets, zombies, eating disorders, socializing, female chauvinism... and everything in between." Somewhere in the process, good taste may find itself under pressure.
Her wayward list, together with the music of Monsoon Sexy Season, speaks in fact to the heritage of lounge performance as a whole. The style arose after WWII - amid international desires for peace - and was grounded in easygoing attempts to evoke the (stereotypical) air of a distant location. Hawaii, for example, could be summoned in hushed, calming tones with a few steel guitars. With a little help from the stage, listeners or customers at the bar could imagine themselves somewhere warmer - and safer.
It's interesting to see nowadays how a lot of that MOR music, be it from lounge jazz of the '60s or from '70s R&B, say, is treated very differently by young Russian beatmakers. The music of happy "displacement" no longer works; the sounds of somewhere warmer are neither emulated nor respected - at least not in the traditional sense. They're chopped, spliced, and fed through all manner of hardware.
An MOR heritage is now subjected to irony, love, and despair at the same time. It's all reconsidered by young men and women who don't believe they'll ever visit the overseas places responsible for such sounds. Those in the provinces may never even see Moscow.
Objects of desire - the soft sounds of lounge music - are hugged so tight, they break; the distance from a rhumba to dystopia doesn't seem so great.
Take, for example, the gifted young beatmaker Ufmo (aka Roman Kosovtsev and shown in the two images above). His various web venues, listed in our profile, include no self statement of any kind. Instead, textual observations come only as sampled lines from the anglo-traditions of '60s and '70s mainstream jazz.
Most recognizable, perhaps, is Shirley Bassey's 1971 "Diamonds Are Forver," used for the Bond film of the same name. Although the song is famously full of sexual innuendo, Ufmo samples only the title and an innocent phrase from the latter stages of the track: "What good will love do me?" It's repeated over and over; the cynicism of the original becomes a heartfelt plea.
What good will love do me?
These words of love and affection, though, given the way they're manipulated, eventually speak not of happy relocation in faraway lands; instead they become part of a growing sense of isolation. Someone else's big, bold celebration of excess is turned into an introspective, lyrical musing. Confidence - and the calm thereof - is transformed into the repetitious patterns of anxiety and (self-)consolation.
The Moscow webzine Drugoy Hip-Hop said of Ufmo's 2010 release, "Unidentified": "These tracks are made from unknown sounds [or samples]. They merge as a kind of music that's without genre... They lead to thoughts of some alien lifeforms." As we see below, the songs of erstwhile celebrity take on a new, faceless existence - very far from home.
As the focused, polished evocation of another land becomes a scrapbook of fading "alien" influences, somewhere online, it's helpful to consider the work of a Balakovo colleague, SC49 (who sometimes prefers the Cyrillic Эсцэ). Here, too, we have zero textual support - yet discover a large collection of images. Put differently, instead of any self-portraiture, SC49 uses photographs that display other individuals. His self-depiction is placed wholly "elsewhere."
On LastFM, for example, in the "About Me" rubric, our musician's allocated space is jam-packed with figures from a US post-war jazz, soul, or R&B catalog: Nina Simone, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson, and others.
The most remarkable aspect of his MOR sampling, though, is the tempo: almost everything is decelerated, to the point where hip-hop or Philly soul, by way of illustration, begins to sound like witch house! Any upbeat, primetime sensibility in the original bites and loops immediately becomes darker; tales of love become a drunken stumbling. And in fact SC49, amid this general atmosphere of lumpen physicality, makes ample use of post-war "erotica" from the US - as hopes of sunny beaches and Hawaiian romance turned unimpressively into pornography.
Commerce caught up with - and surpassed - any gratitude for peaceful reverie.
Russia' s moving ahead; soon we'll catch America!
The public comments on Soundcloud are universally positive; listeners sense the local relevance of these slow, tipsy, and occasionally soporific tracks. One admirer has posted a remark in faux-socialist rhetoric: "Russia' s moving ahead; soon we'll catch America!" One could interpret that quip either positively (in terms of international innovation) or negatively (if SC49's compositions are critiquing Russia's own commercialization of romance).
Even within the name Monsoon Sexy Season, before such matters surface, we sense a little irony; the phrasing sits somewhere between dreams and shoptalk. The further we travel from the "center of things," especially among younger or provincial musicians, the more those holiday dreams decelerate. Pictures blur and ideals grow indistinct... as they slip away for good.