Optimism: Murakami, Pryamo v Guby, Vnutrennee Sgoranie, & Phooey!

Pryamo v Guby (Прямо в губы, Yekaterinburg)

The Russian phrase Pryamo v Guby might be translated as "Right on the Lips." It also belongs to a young band from the city of Yekaterinburg, who use the same three words in a brief and uncomplicated stanza on their social networking accounts. In English it could read as follows. "Kiss me on the lips, please./ I'm tired of unpredictability./ I'm tired of 'I will-I-won't-I-don't-know.' /Kiss me right on the lips, please." 

That direct statement is very much at odds with the band's presence online. The musicians remain a mystery to most Russian journalists: Pryamo v Guby appeared only a few months ago and have no more than a handful of songs to their name. Nonetheless, those same initial compositions have been included in the soundtrack for three domestic television series. As a result, the available background information is limited to tiny phrases, abstract musings, and random assumptions. There are no detailed facts upon which to base an objective assessment. 

Kiss me on the lips, please/ I'm tired of unpredictability

As so we find prose of the following type, concerning "five young romantics from Yekaterinburg... This band was only just created, and yet they've managed to win over the fussiest, most demanding listeners. They've charmed the sort of young and well-to-do audiences who value their time, personal liberty, and dismiss all manner of generic constraints. It seems that music fans in the Big City really miss lyric poetry [like this], the kind that tends to hide its loneliness and tenderness from the noise or haste of urban existence." This interplay of happiness (or at least relief) and melancholy becomes increasingly important.

Seemingly the only self-statement to come from the musicians defines the tiny catalog of Pryamo v Guby as "something beautiful and sunny––albeit with occasional clouds." And then, if we look at a recent compilation from the same region of Russia––including a song by this same ensemble––then related phrasing reappears. There is a long tradition of pop and rock outfits from Yekaterinburg, which was known under the Soviets as Sverdlovsk. A rock club of great cultural importance was even endorsed by the authorities in the 1980s. Naturally enough, the curators of a Yekaterinburg compilation album in 2016 ask whether those local traditions are being continued, three decades later. 

Phooey! (Zhytomyr, Ukr.): "Girl Songs, Part Two" (2016)

"The Ural Mountains [around Yekaterinburg] mean everything to us! Everything is so special here: the people, their outlook, their language––and their music, too. Especially the music! It's impossible to imagine Russian popular songs without those 'Ural' touches––without depressing stories that have a happy ending." To hear the entire canon of Russian song defined in terms of a single structure is to recall a similar idea regarding local prose and poetry. It is often suggested that classic Russian literature is structured as an "Easter narrative," wherein characters suffer materially or physically, but––at the last possible moment––are granted a spiritual freedom. Social declines rarely end in the same uplifting way, of course, and so songs of faith are very useful indeed.

Repost this if you want––although it's probably not worth the effort

Hope is therefore one option in tough economic times; another is indifference. One of the last EPs from Ukrainian garage rock band Phooey! was called "Hello Doubt." The band introduced the recording as "five and half songs about totally pointless issues. Take a listen, please. Repost this if you want––although it's probably not worth the effort." In an equally offhand manner, some more recent material—"Songs for My Little Brother"––was said both to follow the utter "nonsense" of prior recordings and represent a "mix of Pink Floyd and Blink-182... whatever that means." Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. are also popular reference points in the local press when discussing Phooey! Further names and nods only confuse matters. 

A new interview with the band in the Ukrainian press adds some context, just prior to the release of "Girl Songs, Part Two." Frontman Nikita Ogurtsov offers some informative words about his hometown of Zhytomyr; as with Pryamo v Guby, landscape has an important role to play. "As with Joy Division and Manchester, so the geography here affects me a lot. On the other hand, if you don't like the place you were born and raised, then create your own reality––come up with something new. And that's how you try to evolve, although your hometown will always be with you. It's not something you can just throw away." Aspirations struggle against a growing sense of inevitability. 

In a related development, Ogurtsov is not especially keen to explain the meaning of his lyrics. He prefers either that the texts be considered "self-sufficient" or be subjected to endless reinterpretation, such that nobody dictates their semantics. "On lyric websites such as SongMeanings.com you'll find a lot of ideas [about poetic interpretation]... There's something charming when the text constantly blooms or grows; it turns one individual song into a sort of box"––with multiple drawers. The more meaning can be shaped by patience and optimism, the better. A desired narrative will transpire––eventually.

Murakami (Kazan): "No Hassles" (Без суеты, 2016)

When we first looked at the rock band Murakami from Kazan, the musicians spoke about the impossibility of dictating one's fate (or long-term planning) within the Moscow music business. For that reason, whenever these same artistes in Tatarstan are asked about the "further destiny" of Murakami, they're unwilling to make bold prognoses. 

"The main thing is to savor each moment––here and now. We're always busy with creative work and we get pleasure from that alone. It's great to go on stage, in other words to enter a concert hall where people are waiting just for you. They're waiting for new songs––and for new experiences, too. I think the main thing is not to stop, but simply to keep creating, creating, creating... We've no idea what'll be there, up ahead of us. We'll just keep hoping that our work has not been in vain."

We've no idea what'll be there, up ahead of us. We'll just keep hoping...

There is now a new Murakami album––"No Hassles" (Без суеты)––plus a number of interviews in the Russian press with vocalist Dilyara Vagapova. The band has just passed its tenth anniversary, and Vagapova was asked whether the towns and stages, coast to coast, are now blurred into one. She does not agree. "I truly love my country... If anyone has the opportunity to travel, then it would be strange not to grab it and see all those beautiful locations. So I wouldn't say the towns have merged into one. I write on the road and record places, either with my memory or with a camera." The avoidance of a dead end––or of a singular, monolithic meaning––is achieved with an open-ended, optimistic view of one's craft, one in which surprise and difference are always possible.

"I'm not drawing any grand conclusions from our ten years together. Every month there's something new for us to do; every month we're putting some new ideas into practice... I recently edited a video to mark the anniversary, a short film made from bits of footage across the years. I suddenly realized how much time has passed, how often the band's lineup has altered, and how much music we've played together––on so many stages! Everything has changed so quickly. Sometimes it can be frightening... [So] the greatest achievement over ten years has been the band's continued existence. I mean the fact  Murakami is still around––and in good shape. I'm proudest of having stuck to a goal... I've been offered so many opportunities to stop all this and dedicate myself to something else. And I never went astray!" 

Dilyara Vagapova, vocalist and co-founder of Murakami

And then, bordering on sentimentality, Vagapova expresses her ongoing gratitude that Murakami fans "are wide-eyed [with wonder]. It's something I notice immediately––irrespective of age." In a provincial city, on the edge of a continent (not to mention a marketplace), Murakami declare that a sunny, "wide-eyed" view of the future is enough to last a decade. By implication, the alternative would be convention and a curmudgeonly outlook––neither of which are good material for a pop song. 

If good cheer is a tough call in many industrial towns and cities around Russia, then the discography of St. Petersburg's Vnutrennee Sgoranie ("Internal Combustion") is a useful counterbalance. The band imagines their songwriting––and the themes thereof––as teetering on "a thin line, beyond which hysteria and nervous breakdowns occur. That same line divides consciousness from oblivion. Each and every emotion is experienced to an extreme..." Local fans and observers talk in related terms of Sgoranie's "gloomy, semi-acoustic performances." 

We'll keep on living...

Vnutrennee Sgoranie, even nowadays, speak of the essential role played by mutual support. Teamwork is needed to keep going. "Over time, we became less of a rock group [in the traditional sense], and more a collection of people who both supplement and sense one another." These increasing tensions between desire and drive, between hope and determination, can become pronounced. One band member, in an especially difficult moment, made a profoundly romantic declaration: "As we burn up, we shine... if only for a moment." The process of self-destruction takes on a creative air, since it at least comes from a stubborn refusal to let drudgery hold sway over reverie. 

The newest Sgorantie album has just been published––and already created a flurry of journalistic interest. The LP's title is a neologism, which could be translated as "Selffear" (Себябоязнь). Speaking to band members Anton Syrkin and Timur Karimov, one Russian newspaper last month went in search of additional contextual meaning. The professional challenges hinted at by Dilyara Vagapova are sketched again––in darker tones.

Vnutrennee Sgoranie (St. Pbg): "Selffear" (Себябоязнь, 2016)

"Since the last LP, our lineup has changed, and writing new songs was a painful process. One of us has gone through liver treatment, while we went on rare tours––to nearby towns. We somehow pulled together money for this recording and staged additional concerts here in St. Petersburg. The audiences, however, came rarely and in small numbers. We rehearsed all on our own. Despite the decent reviews for the last LP, we didn't get to be famous. People still don't know who we are. And we still don't know whether that's good or bad. On one hand, there's a sort of dull hopelessness in those half-empty, tiny clubs. On the other hand, there's still a chance we might become part of Russia's DIY show business––even if that leaves a pretty dull sensation, too! We kinda seem stuck between those two states."  

A sober head doesn't need hope; it needs reliable information and the courage to make decisions

The same journalist next suggests that "Selffear" is "all about death," but the musicians immediately counter with a claim that whatever the misery of domestic life, "We'll keep on living." Even when hope is faint, desire and determination endure. The metaphor of a dying flame reappears: "So much is unknown to us in life. So we'll keep going as long as there's a flame burning." That sense of purpose––or at least grim resolve––informs new songs recorded partially in a "local village cemetery or some abandoned concrete industrial building. A[n empty] structure in the middle of some fields." 

The interview's closing, overarching topic is that of hope. "We're not the ones to give people hope. That's not our goal––let politicians and religious figures handle that. A sober head doesn't need hope; it needs reliable information and the courage to make decisions based upon that same information. People need facts, not illusions and hope."

From the sunny outlook of Pryamo v Guby, troubled only by the occasional cloud or rain shower, we move further from prayer and more towards pragmatism. There comes a point at which aspirations––if dashed with sufficient frequency––will morph into existential austerity, as suggested by Vnutrennee Sgoranie

And yet, even the gloomiest form of self-reliance implies a modicum of confidence. And so these four recordings, all constructed around tales of possible encouragement, offer variations upon a marketable theme. The difference between them, philosophically, is determined by the desire of audiences to hear either sunny "illusions" or sobering "facts." The early success of Pryamo v Guby in licensing their work shows clearly which option Moscow's state-run media would prefer. 

Vnutrennee Sgoranie (Внутреннее сгорание/ Internal Combustion)


Murakami – Impossible
Phooey! – The Girl with the Ugly Hair
Phooey! – Your Fault

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