The Trouble with Simplicity: Pianoboy, Picnic, Mirabilia, and The Cancel

Dmitry Shurov (aka Pianoboy/Pianoбой, Kiev)

Every so often, some unique material comes our way that makes primetime enterprise in Eastern Europe seem utterly lamentable. In other words, a recording will appear that proves itself wise, witty, and eminently suitable for mainstream listeners. Such matters, however, are decided in large corporate offices and lofty transmission towers. The most recent of these potential "bridging" works comes from Kiev resident Dmitry Shurov and his solo project Pianoboy. That stage name is often written as "Pianoбой": the last syllable sounds the same in English, but is made instead from the Russian word for "battle" or "struggle." That pun alone implies that Shurov is willing to fight hard for these songs and assail the high, unforgiving walls of mainstream convention.

Mr. Shurov's brave goals seem feasible in that he's already well-known to Ukrainian audiences for his involvement in several major rock bands, such as Esthetic Education (since 2004) and - before that - Okean El'zy. He has, as they say, prior form.

The whole thing is fantastically cr*ppy. But you really should give it a listen!

Raised in an artistic family, with his father's connections to national TV in the background, Shurov has now reached a major milestone in his adult career with the publication of a debut album, "Simple Things" (Prostye Veshchi). Once again, his choice of words stands in implicit contradiction to primetime excess. In a recent interview, he directly mocked that same distance between solo enthusiasm and corporate convention. He refused to lapse into self-congratulatory PR: "The album is full of inadequacies. I sang the whole thing badly and played the music horrifically. All the songs were recorded to the lowest standards; in fact, they're unsuitable for anything. The CD's artwork is stupid and derivative. In a word, the whole thing is fantastically cr*ppy. But you really should give it a listen!"

A Ukrainian craftsman and some Dutch courage

That same zeal, come what may, is evident in Shurov's penchant for big tunes and the occasional power chord. Throwing fashion to the wind, he happily - and openly - embraces the crowd-pleasing, anthemic sweep of The Beatles, Queen, or Stevie Wonder - and even some stars of Soviet pop, specifically Sophia Rotaru. Such are his chosen references. "At some point, this all gets so muddled together that I started to forget who I am [as a composer]."

The most valuable context for "Simple Things" comes from a series of workplace notes that Shurov has embedded on his website, framing each of the album's thirteen songs. We've chosen here the two opening tracks of the album, and Shurov has tended to see these initial compositions as philosophical calling cards for the album as a whole. They restate and bolster the main contention made thus far, that the most elusive - yet valuable - experiences are the least complicated. This reaches the point where Shurov speaks with admiration for the (beautiful!) MOR banality of Paul Mauriat.

Complexity is simple... and simplicity's complex

Of the opening track "Farewell Forever" (Proshchai Navsegda) he says: "Even though the song might sound rather 'epic' from a melodic point of view, the message is really simple. You need to enjoy the present day - and do so with the emotions you're experiencing now... because nothing good ever lasts for long." The CD's title track - not surprisingly - develops this idea a little further. It lauds an absence of grandeur or worldly bravado. "That song arose from me doing absolutely nothing! It emerged from a lack of clear ideas in my head. The only thing I could think of was the key phrase: 'Complexity is simple... and simplicity's complex'..."

Dmitry Shurov in preparation for live work

He continues: "At some point, all my favorite songwriters have said that there's nothing tougher than writing a simple, bright, and melodic pop-song. That's because you need first to get rid of your hang-ups - and work with an open heart." Quoting his lyrics, Shurov adds: "That's why 'simple things make the world go round.' At the very end of the track there's a direct reference - with a trumpet motif - to The Beatles, whom I've listened to since childhood and I consider the masters of that principle." Rooted in the craftwork of 1967, "Prostye Veshchi" proves itself to be a wonderfully witty - and wise - collection of songs. It deserves a very wide audience.

There's nothing tougher than writing a simple, bright, and melodic pop-song

A similarly endearing simplicity is celebrated this week by fellow Ukrainians The Cancel, who are based in the spa town of Morshyn, near the border with Poland. This small collective, involving at least two musicians (Andrey Zelensky and the intriguingly named Dmitro Competition) admit to the origin of their aesthetic in old Soviet vinyl recordings and fairy tales. Nonetheless, their last outing - entitled "Reply from Space" - imagined the appeal of love and affection far beyond any lines once drawn by political geography. 

Instead of the troubled social or political systems over the last twenty years in Eastern Europe, support and sympathy moved to the forefront of attention. Uncomplicated and mutual support systems (such as amity) work on a much grander scale, ignoring borders and boundaries.

In a similar way, talk of successful or professional "output" from The Cancel is a direct consequence of audience enthusiasm. At no point in the proceedings is material gain mentioned by any of these artists; some smiles and raised cameras are a better, simpler reward. Easy-going friendship beats tricky finance.

The Cancel (Morshyn, Ukraine)

The newest work from Morshyn is a two-track single dedicated to the unhurried and welcoming atmosphere of coffee houses. It has just been enthusiastically endorsed by the Siberian webzine Big Echo. "These two new compositions head straight for the heart of the summer season. They foster an atmosphere of jazzy, musical cafes leaving [on this occasion] all hip-hop experimentation to one side." In the place of complexity, deceleration and ease step forth.

One admirer on Vkontakte has even written a small poem of gratitude to The Cancel! In English prose it might read: "You're traveling to work one morning, feeling so-so. The music's playing, just to make your heart smile. Shop windows and windscreens are reflected in your spectacles. The asphalt's rich with that urban aroma of well-worn tires. Each handclap and sample [of your music] resonates in my heart. Thanks, The Cancel, you're tip-top!"

An atmosphere of jazzy, musical cafes, leaving all hip-hop experimentation to one side

If we turn our gaze towards Estonia, in the name of an objective comparison, a different understanding of ease appears. We're focusing here on the ensemble known as Picnic, who were founded in 2006. The band was originally a foursome of Rivo Järvsoo, Andres Soosaar, the enigmatic "Annika," and vocalist Marju Taukar; that quartet, however, was very quickly reduced to a trio. Social relationships were complex. First heard on a Seksound compilation album, Picnic would eventually move on to a fully-fledged album: "Winter Honey." As that studio work increased, so did a sense of stylistic commitment. 

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.

Picnic (Tallinn). L to R: Andres SoosaarMarju Taukar and Rivo Järvsoo

Simultaneous enthusiasm, somewhat further from home, was equally 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.

And now there's a new single on display, published through The San Francisco/Portland label, Shelflife. More specifically, Picnic have turned to a couple of American MOR classics, once made famous by The Carpenters and Dionne Warwick: "We've Only Just Begun" and "Say a Little Prayer." The staff at Shelflife are keen to remind listeners of the writers or lyricists responsible for those ageless tunes, which lead us back to the views of Dmitry Shurov: an elegantly simple, yet incredibly rare skill is on display. It deserves loud praise, since it's infrequently encountered. The uncomplicated, kitsch nature of those two gems is often mocked by cynical hipsters, yet they both continue to melt hearts worldwide.

There is, of course, a tragic subtext to "We've Only Just Begun" - and Warwick herself is a cousin of the late Whitney Houston. Both songs, in other words, are linked to the failed search for private happiness (or self-respect) in a very public, if not heartless realm. For that reason, perhaps, Shelflife tie these compositions to the indie introspection we've just documented. The distance between tortured MOR classics and shoegaze is minimal: both draw upon a chemically assisted lifestyle in the (increasingly) desperate battle for a fundamental, yet fleeting state. Both Karen Carpenter and Whitney Houston lost that struggle.

Mirabilia (Tallinn): "Sümpaatiline Õudus" (Sympathetic Horror, 2012)

Shelflife tells us: "Picnic are clearly influenced by classic shoegaze and dreampop. While there is something vastly familiar about their sound, it never feels overly nostalgic in any way. They add their own soaring signatures with unconventional instrumentation and a modern use of electronics, all while standing firmly grounded to pure pop structure and melody." The structures are not complex; the hopes they voice certainly are. 

That tension between aspirations and anxiety has undoubtedly been evident in the work of Tallinn and Seksound colleagues Mirabilia. As we've noted before, Mirabilia claim to "dig through the world of pop history in order to recover its true, fading brilliance... without becoming annoyingly naive." It's a tough call, especially if we consider the textual basis of their catalog. The band has drawn directly upon the verse of Baudelaire, and with special enthusiasm on the poem "Sympathetic Horror."

Your red rays reflect the hell,/ In which my heart is pleased to dwell

If the musicians and ensembles showcased today yearn with increasing anxiety for uncomplicated joys, Baudelaire's poem shows the (very) painful extremes to which one might go - in search of some flickering bliss: "Skies, torn like seacoasts by the storm!/ In you I see my pride take form,/ And the huge clouds that rush in streams/ Are the black hearses of my dreams,/ And your red rays reflect the hell,/ In which my heart is pleased[!] to dwell."

As clarity fades - and various entanglements grow - the line between "easy" enjoyment and labyrinthine discomfort vanishes. Dmitry Shurov's radiant songs celebrate an almost childlike presentism, but these equally new publications from The CancelPicnic, and Mirabilia all imply that social life frequently muddles matters. If Mirabilia, for example, feel the need to use French decadent verse to describe the "happiness" of modernity, then merriment is fighting a losing battle. Shoegaze and distortion are probably the most suitable vehicles for a waning, yet insistently cherished hope.

Picnic: "We've Only Just Begun/ Say a Little Prayer" (2012)

Audio

The Cancel – Coffee Time
Pianoboy – Farewell Forever
The Cancel – Morning Cafe
Mirabilia – Paikesevarjutus
Picnic – Say a Little Prayer
Pianoboy – Simple Things
Mirabilia – Sumpaatiline Oudus
Picnic – We've Only Just Begun

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