Well, neither, perhaps, though the brutal truth is that general sentiment among the Bodhisattvas runs more towards the latter (the "stale nan") than the former. Nifty, Indian-inspired flourishes it does have aplenty, but the songwriting itself leaves much to be desired…and creates a great deal of nostalgia for those days, not so long ago, when Rajah Boris was seemingly incapable of writing a bad song.
This, mind you, is even allowing for the fact that the only albums of recent years that a solid plurality of Bodhisattvas has whole-heartedly endorsed have been the Bardos (I and II). Still, all the albums since Lilith have had their fierce partisans willing to go to bat for them, whereas such enthusiasm as Fisherman's Songs has engendered hereabouts has been notably muted. KVE inadvertently, perhaps, set the tone by describing it as a "nice" album. Just so. "Nice" is a word you use about someone you don't want to offend, but don't actually find very attractive…nobody that you'd want to take to bed with you. This is a "nice album": harmless and pleasant, but not genuinely sexy. The best bits of it aren't really top-notch, and the worst bits can be wince-inducing indeed.
(Parenthetically, it seems worth noting here that I find no great cause for alarm in this. Any songwriter with a career as long and varied as Boris' is bound to release the occasional album that will test his older fans' devotion. Think Bob Dylan. Think Elvis Costello. Think Neil Young. If you adore every single album they've ever produced, you're either amazingly tolerant, or amazingly cloth-eared. So let it be with Boris.)
But it's not as if Fisherman is really all that bad…and least not by my likes. Sure, if I'd been fishing for it I would have thrown it back…but only to give it the chance to grow and develop over another season or two into a real keeper. Boris seems to be going someplace very interesting on this album; unfortunately it seems to me he turns around and heads for home when he gets about halfway there.
Some notes about the tracks he leaves behind:
Faerie: A goofy, mind-numbing 4/4 pseudo-reggae ditty, whose musical merit, where it has it any, is supplied by the oddball assortment of strings, winds and Eastern muezzin-like vocals that chime in at various points in the background. This creates an odd tension, where the entire surface of the song is as insipid an exercise in cheesy keyboard effects as one could well imagine, while in its depths lurk murky hints that it could have been—and should have been—something entirely different. And the lyrics? As disjointed as the music, alas, larded with stereotypical Grebenschikovisms—"You fly through the electric sky thinking you'd rather fall" etc.—unconnected by any clear logical thread.
Man from Kemerovo: By general consensus the best song on the album. Twangy guitar, a lovely distorted violin, water-drop percussion, a great flute solo, and appropriately growly vocals remind us that BG can still pull it all together on occasion.
The Day After Tomorrow: Also by general consensus one of the better tracks, and without a doubt the one to most effectively use the rogues' gallery of Indian musicians credited below. The lyrics strike the right balance between wordplay and sentiment and the music effortlessly achieves the East/West synthesis that Boris seems to be striving for less successfully elsewhere on this album. It's great here, too, to hear a flute getting genuinely wiggy every now and again, Dyusha-style.
Seahorse: As others have already pointed out, it's Beatlemania in a bottle. The tune is jaunty and the instrumentation—especially the piano and the wah-wah guitar—works well, but for all that it's a pretty insubstantial bit of fluff. More "Yellow Submarine," say, than "A Day in the Life." Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se, but, errr, where did the India theme suddenly disappear to? And the best bit really has to be the loveliness at near the very end, when BG shuts up and the bagpipes (at least, they sound like bagpipes) and the flute kick in.
Winter Rose: A nine-minute serenade with a strikingly Dylanesque vocal layered over a swirly dog's breakfast of instrumental and vocal noises and effects. I find it at once hypnotic and a little boring, but concede that it's the kind of song that I could come to love after about the thirtieth listening. Boris purrs sexily in the lowest end of his register, as a sitar and flute bounce playfully off one another and Shar taps happily on the bongos.
Pablo: There really can be no excuse for this. At least last year's "Rastamen from Hicksville" was so dumb you had to laugh. Here you can only cry...or scream, or whatever it is the sound of fake steel-drums makes you do. The wacky horns toward the end ease the pain a little, but in general this is a pseudo-Calypso hangover that makes me want to puke mojitos. And, at least to me, the lyrics hardly make a lick of sense, so there's no redemption to be found therein.
Fog on the Yangtze: You can really see the thought-bubble on this one: "I've never done anything in a Chinese vein…ну, пора!" Except it isn't really in a Chinese vein. Sure, it starts out that way, with what sounds like a Damsel with a Dulcimer playing in Xanadu, but soon enough there's a whole friggin' string section sawing away, somebody's keeping time on a triangle, and Rubekin has his keyboards set to "calliope." What it is, really, is one of Boris' carousel waltzes, thinly disguised…and by now you should know whether you like those or not (see Kostroma mon amour, among other places).
Karmic Diagnostic: Well, it has a kickin' groove, chuggin' along by means of keyboards, bass, and bongos. But the music also suffers from an overly exuberant everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach—a dash of Indian ecstatic warbling here, a pinch of one of those droning Indian instruments there, a salting of guitar, a random sprinkling of horns, keyboards going apeshit on any number of levels simultaneously—while no effort at all has been made to synch the music and BG's wry lyrics, which he basically chants, rather than sings, over the song's insistent beat. BG the Buddhist ought to know by now that "less is more"…and what we have here is more that is definitely less. Mix every color in the rainbow together and what do you get? Turd-brown, that's what.
Duck Creek: A detour so bizarre I'm going to have to re-examine it in more detail below. In the meantime all you need to know, daddy-o, is that it's 30's-style Swing-time at the Waldorf Astoria. Can Boris swing? Yes, he can. (God knows, far better than he can calypso). But that doesn't mean that it's not spectacularly ill-advised to do so here. Oh, and a certain "Sister Chaos"—words which never actually appeared on the eponymous album—gets a passing reference.
Yellow Moon: A high-tech lullabye-cum-lovesong that rhymes "полюби" with USB. It has an offbeat charm that, I must admit, is gradually growing on me, thanks primarily to the deft instrumental touches, including a subtle steel guitar, and a flute on the bridges that once again summons the ghost of Akvarium Past. I know I've heard that da-de-da-de-dum break in the melody somewhere before, though…can anybody name the BorrowinG?
Taken individually most of these songs actually stand up pretty well, but put them all together and the result is somehow offputting. (Boris actually addresses a similar sort of paradox in "Yellow Moon": "A minus on a minus doesn't always yield a plus.") The heart of the problem is that, like Kostroma mon amour (the earlier BG opus most analogous to it) Fisherman, in some ontological sense, isn't an "album" at all. Most songwriters—especially songwriters of Boris' caliber—recognize that an album, especially a great album, is more than just a grab-bag of songs: it has an artistic unity and integrity all its own. Experimentation is a virtue, but too many experiments and things tend to blow up in your face. And—boom!—that's what's happened here.
If Boris had stuck with the Indian theme that carries us through half of Fisherman, things might have been different. Instead we have detours—some successful, some not—into half a dozen other musical idioms: Reggae, Western, Calypso, Psychedelia, Swing, and mock-Chinese. Entropy inevitably sets in: there's a point at which eclecticism becomes schizophrenia, and that point, for me personally, is reached even before "Duck Creek." That, track, however, puts things completely beyond the pale. It's a fine song of its type, but musically it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else on the album. The effect is what you'd get if, say, you took R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" and stuck it in the middle of Murmur, or if you'd stuck "Lola" in the middle of the Kinks' classic album The Village Green Preservation Society. Except, the effect is even more jarring than that. Perform the exercise with whatever long-running band/singer-songwriter you'd care to name, and you'd be hard-pressed to find one who would deliberately set about disrupting the tone/mood/effect of his work with such a congress of "white ravens" (as the Russian idiom has it) as Boris has assembled here. Or, as Bodhisattvas of Babylon's own k.p. tikka-ri put it, what we have here is what the Finns would call "meatballs with perfume." Вот так.
Too, I can't escape the feeling that all the bells and whistles and whiz-bang instrumental fireworks on Fisherman are hiding something. A good measure of how good a song really is can be had by imagining how it might sound stripped down to its barest bones, a la Prayer and Fasting…and that's very, very difficult to do here. I suspect, however, that I wouldn't care for the result one whit.
So, yeah, go ahead and get it anyway, and play it with the same spirit you would a mix-tape made by a very eccentric friend; but don't expect it to be a classic Akvarium album, or even one as good as 1999's ? or 2002's Sister Chaos. But—as you probably already know if you're reading this—even Boris' "failures" somehow manage to be more interesting than many contemporary musicians' successes.
Witnesses for the Prosecution
I am dangerously close to proclaiming it the worst "Aquarium album proper" since I don't know when. Words like "self-parody" and "lite FM" dance in my head. "Ethnic" arrangements make Sting's "Desert Rose" sound daring. Lordy. There is NOT A SINGLE CHORUS on the album (quatrain, 16 bars of noodling, quatrain, 16 bars of noodling, etc.) My main problem with the album isn't even the antiseptic arrangements…You must agree that the writing is simply lazy. I'm not discussing lyrics now, just the music. No key changes, no tempo changes, no choruses even ("Winter Rose," dubbear's favorite, is, incidentally, the only one that slightly evolves as it goes along, but not nearly enough to sustain its 47 verses). That would be fine for an album of acoustic folk ballads—but not for a fully-arranged, fully-promoted plat du rock.
To me, the new album is absolutely undigestable. Its sound, thanks to Rubekin's great contribution, is a mixture of the noise those electronic "Happy Bithday"-cards make when you open them, and of a Fisher's Price child's keyboard melody. Even the half-decent "Faerie" is killed by those unbearable pauses between the lines. Where has all the usual BG dynamism gone?
In Fisherman's Songs the style suffers, but the content is not exceptionally good either. Hearing "PR" after Sister Chaos is like consuming feces after dining at a restraunt, and I'm not exaggerating. There were some poor songs on "SC" as well—for example, "500" with its "everything-is-bad-in-our-society-let's-be-socially-conscious-and-forget-subtext-just-say-it-out-loud" text and also "Rastamen"—but, again, the music was good. Together with "Psalm," which borrowed heavily from "Let my people go", and with "Northern Color" and "Fate's Foot", "SC" was to me BG's best work since Navigator. I was so happy the day I bought it!
Fisherman, on the contrary, is nasty. "Winter rose" is seriously taking the piss out of the listener with its monotonous blab, and "Seahorse" is the biggest disaster ever. The melody is worse than any of Shafutinsky's "кабацко-ресторанные" songs. The "Man from Kemerovo" goes alright, but just because of the badness of other tracks; on "SC" it would be seen as a third-rate song, I mean, just remember "Brother Nicotine"—how much more inspired was that! Finally, what really annoys me are Greben's attempts to use loads of "modern" terms—MTV, Gasprom, Firewall...It sounds so shallow. I hated it on Lilith (another horrible album) and I hate it here. After all, BG never used any typical Soviet words in his 70-80s lyrics, no "Komsomol" or "OVIR". So why does he try so hard to fit into the new system? Where is all the intuitional stuff gone, the subtext, words between the lines which we guessed by means of BG's intonation? I just hope that BG will not go down this road on his next albums. Experiments are good, but this one is a deep abyss.
Witnesses for the Defense
Surely it isn't the best Aquarium album of all time, but it is Aquarium 2003 and there is still enough on this record to realize what a great musician and songwriter BG is. You have to imagine it as a good old lp with two sides: Side 1, "The great, new, all-Indian side—with one exception"; and Side 2, "The new Aquarium showing its strength and weaknesses—with one exception".
Side 1 has a really great start: tracks 1 to 3 may not be sing-along all-time classics, but that wasn't to be expected. These three Indian-flavored tracks are a good example of that BG's songwriting skills are still extant and the "Indian" production suits them well: no programmed trying to be up-to-date, but real, played music…I'd like to say about track 5, "Winter Rose", about 9 minutes and really beautiful (I hope the lyrics aren't too sentimental). The "exception" on Side 1 is "Seahorse", slightly psychedelic, Beatles-style. but I guess, it's there just to remind us how we came to here: It's the Indian trip starting with Sgt. Pepper.
Side 2 is about the near past: New Aquarium, late 90s, early 00s with all its trying to be hip ("Pablo": breakbeat, slide guitar and mariachi horns...) and its difficult sides (jazzy "Duck Creek"). That's the way it is, and that's the way the world is these days. Still we have one exception: "Yellow Moon."…really beautiful, reminds me of 80s aquarium, great melody, nice arrangement.
So my opinion about Songs of the Fishermen: history, now and then, is chaos. All we're doing is trying to make sense of it. So let's take this album of what is now. It's good and definitely likeable. If it's a classic we'll see in a couple of years, but for now it's ok to be satisfied.
It's a nice album. I think it is lyrically inconsistent. Most of the lyrics are brilliant. The same can be said of music and arrangements. But on at least half of the songs music and lyrics don't work well together. Highlights (in order of appearance) for me include "Kemerovo" (a very "Shadow"/"On Her Side" type of song, with an interesting arrangement), "Day After Tomorrow" (one of those "feel good" songs), "Winter Rose" (kinda Dylanish with intro reminding of Radio London), and "Yellow Moon" (FireWire/USB references made it worth it). The worst ones are "Karmic Diagnostic" and "Pablo" (still can't decide which one I don't like the most). "Seahorse" is very Jethro Tullish, but the reference to "Kolya" killed it for me. "Fog on the Yangtze," for some reason, reminds me of some old Hollywood musical. It is a nicely produced (for post-Zubarev Aquarium) album. And, of course, it is hard not to note that 40 minute album limit has finally been broken. :)
I liked all the sitars, loungy pianos, sexy wah-guitars and nice eastern percussion. I even liked the stupid reggae crap, because it reminds me of Serge Gainsbourg reggae period in very late 70's (French doing reggae—'nuff said) The album lacks anthem material but it has nice stuff on it. It's better than half-assed attempts to sound like Massive Attack on the first couple tracks of the Pitchfork album. The cool mantra samples are a nice touch too...Slide guitar is very skillful and much appreciated. I don't listen to lyrics in general: if I want poetry, I'll read a book. Still, I guess I'm struggling to learn to love silly ska/reggae rhythms...and you know it works! If you forget the silly rhythms, there are all kinds of cool melodic layers over it. The ethnic instrumentation is done quite tastefully IMO.
"Man from Kemerovo" is definitely a single—it sounds almost like gothic version of blues, a dark affair of sorts...is it a violin they used, that crazy dervish sound??? I hate the "Seahorse" song for its lyric, but I like the piano...so retro...but that chorus is a slaughter! As I said before, the wah guitar in the intro of "Winter Rose" melts my heart. I really love that song! I am a psycho for that song, I tell ya! It's a keeper!!! Last four songs of album are actually very interesting... as long as you make it through cheesy reggae stuff. Some are nice stuff in a way [like the] quiet songs from Navigator sounded at some point...brushes, bells and more...some cool 20's style swing...it's fun!!!
Just finished my fourth listening, and ready to say that the album is truly great. "Experimental", yes…totally berserk: a bunch of brilliant texts, filled with "self-aware"-puns and insinuations. The musical side is indeed not very bright. Rubekin and Kudiavtsev are impeccable, but the sound engineering is...well, OK. But that's not the point—lyrics spilling all over beats, BG don't really need any musical sophistication here. A great album…though will be probably marked as "unlistenable" by those spoiled by the Sister Chaos sweetness.
6 первых песен и самая последняя - просто вечный кайф, к остальным что-бы врубится до конца, надо просто привыкнуть! [The first six songs and the last one are simply endless fun; to really get into the rest (of the tracks) you just have get used to them.]