Negruzoviki: "They're Not Smiling"

Negruzoviki is an offshoot of Ukrainian funk-rockers I drug moi gruzovik.  The latter band's name is a broken phrase that translates roughly as "...And my friend Truck."  The back story here involves a long and fairly uninteresting discussion of nicknames, so we'll spare you the tedium.

Instead, here's an example of one of the group's better-known numbers, a nicely-structured piece written in honor of German actor Otto Sander.  The influence of the Chili Peppers is clearly marked from the outset.

According the above logic, Negruzoviki would therefore be translated as The NonTrucks, perhaps.  They've just finished a debut net-album, framed by the following press release:  "Work on the album 'They're Not Smiling' began a couple of years back, when the members of I drug moi gruzovik were busy with preparations for their CD 'Ishchu druga' ['Looking for a Friend'].  The project kicked off with a large number of texts - the kind of things that don't mesh stylistically with the band's typical work."

Work on the album 'They're Not Smiling' began a couple of years back, when the members of I drug moi gruzovik were busy with preparations for their CD 'Ishchu druga' ['Looking for a Friend']. The project kicked off with a large number of texts - the kind of things that don't mesh stylistically with the band's typical work.

An outlet was needed for these long-accrued musings.  As the cover below suggests, these were unlikely to be the jolliest works.  Misery visited the band on occasion;  when it did, impressions were scribbled down and now it was time to share this wretchedness with the public.

Ah, such generosity.

"That's when we had the idea of forming a kind of offshoot group;  something that'd allow us to dig around in all the bits and pieces that are kinda atypical for I drug moi gruzovik."

The time over which these sidelined, jotted texts built up is quite considerable.  The original band ("I drug...") was formed in the central Ukrainian town of Dnepropetrovsk in 1997 and - to this day - consists of three friends whose long-term friendship has turned into a very productive and always-interesting ensemble.  Those three core members are Rostislav Chaban (on bass, vocals), Anton Slepakov (vocals), and Vladimir Busel (drums).

The newest offering by these three men is actively looking for the biggest possible audience to depress.  Not only is it being distributed online;  it's also free.  It can be downloaded into dark rooms from several places, such as a recently opened, dedicated blog or the band's long-standing LastFM page.  The seventeen tracks available via these two links were recorded between 2006 and 2008, both in Dnepropetrovsk and much farther north, in St Petersburg.

The band has already deemed "They're Not Smiling" their most serious recording to date.  They're not kidding;  most of the playful tendencies associated with "I drug..." are completely absent.  In the name of an informed comparison, we should quickly note that I drug moi gruzovik recordings from previous years are offered for free here;  that'll help you to judge the considerable distance from celebratory music to things cynical.

A more detailed rationale for the project's growth - over and above the reasons for its inception - can be found in the form of a long, ribbon-like manifesto.  It details the development of "They're Not Smiling" in a series of bullet points.  The initial letters of each point or paragraph, printed in a huge font, combine to spell both the word "Negruzoviki" and the Russian phrase that means "They're Not Smiling."  The full - and graphically impressive - document can be viewed here;  it's too big for our post!

From that text we learn that Negruzoviki, when contemplating the sound of their debut album, wanted very much "to avoid both electronic music and the opposite extreme of a live sound.  It was supposed to be something in between.  That left us with the most pressing question of all:  What does it sound like?  How does it differ from the albums of I drug moi gruzovik?"

They continue rhetorically:  "This album is much more strident.  There's real poetry in it, too.  It sounds much more 'open,' almost a 'barbed' style, full of spiraling, powerful motifs."  It's certainly a more adult recording, too, full of world-weary observations on life that are radically different from the sunny philosophy that marks earlier, danceable CDs.  It's equally far from the playful use of silly props such as the bright "promo-truck" above.

Sit down, turn off the lights, and sigh deeply.

All childish colors are left behind in favor of monochrome misery.  The image below, needless to say, is from a performance by I drug moi - and not Negruzoviki.  No time now for silliness.

"We've also cut back on the colorful variety [that people usually expect] from our instruments.  What remains is an audible 'stinginess' and minimalism.  In any case, take a listen yourselves;  we won't distract you any more."

We've also cut back on the colorful variety [that people usually expect] from our instruments. What remains is an audible 'stinginess' and minimalism. In any case, take a listen yourselves; we won't distract you any more.

Anguish approaching with particular speed over a cable connection.  Firewalls won't save you.

The upside of these recordings is, paradoxically, that their sadness produces a certain eloquence;  despair at social failings creates the pressing need to name their cause.  The hunt for social cause and effect in Slavdom, however, is never an easy one.  Heaven only knows why bad things happen.  Hence the impressive wordplay, trying to nail down the essence of unemployment, jingoism, or failed friendships, among other problems.

The reference above to "real poetry" is therefore important in these "barbed," strident works that are not so much sung as told.  These rhythmic texts, pushing the limits of quotidian expression, are intoned over a very tight, almost naked structure;  it syncopates bassy and metallic sounds to create an industrial funk or, on other occasions, scrambling jazz.  Both forms bolster the expressive potential of already-disheartened speech.

Were parallels possible with other Russian-language outfits, one could suggest the work of Evgenii Grishkovets and Bigudi, maybe Elochnye igrushki, or the faux-Eastern minimalism of the Ezhi and Petruchcho cartoons.

The result is a fascinating - yet challenging - form of quintessentially Slavic toasting or deliberately mundane, philosophically resigned rap.  To stretch a point, one could see an overlap with equally sad Anglo-projects like The Streets, but the lazy, sloppy forms of Skinner's speech are missing here. These increasingly angry observations are arranged according to complex, unnaturally strict rhythms.  This isn't the dead-end of language, but its opposite:  a nervous, twitching attempt to name the cause(s) of shared frustrations.

Almost like the obsessively philosophical hero of Mike Leigh's Naked, we have the reclaiming of smart, sarcastic language from a culture that is forgetting how to use it.  This album does not make for easy listening, but it is very significant.


Negruzoviki – my friend
Negruzoviki – patriot
Negruzoviki – unemployment benefit

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