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Кострома Mon Amour

Kostroma, mon Amour

CD-Triarii 1994


Review

by Dzhon

Actually, some things should be forbidden. Kostroma, mon amour, is a semi-essential recording with some absolutely wonderful songs on it, but, I'm also forced to admit, it's a problem album. The problem, in fact, is that it is not an album at all, but a curious sort of crossbreed—ни так, ни так—neither fish nor fowl, a mongrel, a muddle, and a non-sequitur.

To make such a complaint about an Akvarium album may seem slightly beside the point, especially when I'm on record extolling the virtues of such wildly experimental trans-generic efforts as Radio Africa and Triangle. But wait...there's a difference. Those albums may contain songs written in different styles and musical idioms, but there's an underlying unity to them that defines each of them as an "album"...a sort of recognizable musical thesis statement that threads throughout the disparate tracks. Kostroma doesn't have that—or rather it has three such theses, poorly grafted onto one another and leaking karma through the cracks.

The effect is something like what would happen if you took a chunk of Rubber Soul, a chunk of Sgt. Pepper's and a chunk of Abbey Road and stuck them together: the individual songs may be great, but their integrity is somehow compromised by the unharmonious context. Or, to mix my art-world metaphors, it's like a joint exhibition of Van Gogh, Titian, and Cindy Sherman: they're all worth looking at, but are they worth looking at one and the same time? In the same room? Rarely has a musical opus declared itself to be TRANSITIONAL in such bold capital letters. So TRANSITIONAL is it, that two of the four deliberately non-organic archival albums in the APXUB section, Sands of Petersburg and Archive, Book III, sound totally unified and organic in contrast.

That being said, it also has to be said that the serious Akvarium fan has to have this album: however much the pieces of the jigsaw refuse to dovetail, and however much I'd like to reassign the songs to different albums, there are simply too many pieces of Grebenschikovian sublimity here for the cd to be overlooked.

As Caesar might have remarked, all Kostroma is divided into three parts, which I will hereby christen Son of Russian Album and Mit'ki Mania and A Carnival, of Sorts. Son of Russian Album comprises the following tracks: "Moscow October," "8200," "Kostorma, mon Amour," and "Little Star." Mitki Mania is: "Russian Nirvana," "Sing, Sing Lyre," and "Don't Drink the Wine, Gertrude." A Carnival, of Sorts is: "From the Radiant Emptiness," "I Need You," and "Suvlekhim Takats." Befitting my contention that these are really three separate albums, I will treat them individually.

Mitki Mania is so called because it shows the strong influence of the Mitki albums BG was involved with at about the same time. These songs point directly forward to the Mitki-inflected Navigator, but are in point of fact far more Mitki-ish than anything to be found on that paragon: what we have here is Mightily Mitki-to-the-Max. "Sing, Sing Lyre"—all grunting tuba, sailor-style accordion, and clicking percussion—is excellent...or would be but for the annoying Munchkin-vocaled bridge-verse. Sorry Dji...there is a time and a place for Munchkins, and here is not it. "Russian Nirvana," for its part, is so Mitki-esque in sound that it is in fact indistinguishable from an actual Russian sailor song...that is, until one parses the lyrics and discovers it's basically a Buddhist prayer. It's pretty good. The best of the bunch by a long shot, though, is "Don't Drink the Wine, Gertrude," whose sly lyrics and jaunty accordion-driven melody are pretty much irresistible: one could imagine getting slightly blotto and belting this one out at a Russian wedding.

A Carnival, of Sorts is, alas, two mistakes and a misplacement. "From the Radiant Emptiness" sounds exactly like the kind of music you hear on old-fashioned carousels as you hop up on the stiff wooden horse and go round and round and end up exactly where you started, wondering why you bothered. In point of fact, it's one of my least favorite songs in the entire Akvarium oeuvre, right up there with December's Children's "Thirst." A shame, really, that the music should be so grating, because the lyrics have some wonderful Grebenschikovian wordplay. "Suvlekhim Takats" isn't any better: a bouncy, fruity, dully repetitive flute and accordion trifle that usually inspires me to hit the NEXT button on the remote control. The only one of the three that is really worth saving is "I Need You," a smoky, savage, cri de coeur with simple drums and a growling, angry electric guitar. Unfortunately it doesn't sound even remotely like anything else on the album...though, come to think of it, it wouldn't exactly fit in on any of the other New Akvarium albums either. Taboo, is probably where its lusty, beautiful savagry would best have fit.

This leaves us with Son of Russian Album, the true heart of Kostroma, mon amour. In instrumentation, sound, tone and theme these four songs could all have come right off Russian Album; small wonder, then, that all four of them are keepers. "Moscow October" is an autumn-rain of mandolins, acoustic guitars and wistful lyrics, beautiful and sad, that bursts into a slightly overwrought thundershower of orchestration on the first bridge, and then a redeeming rainbow of flute and mandolin solos at the end. "Little Star" lilts hypnotically along, floating on a feather bed of accordion, flute, and dreamy electronic strings—the kind of thing that the New Akvarium of the era did best. "8200" could easily have been too much: "8200 versts of emptiness/ Yet no place to spend the night/ I could be happy if it weren't for you/ If it weren't you, my Motherland" etc. This is not a subtle, understated sentiment. I'll never forget Dzhubchik at the Historic First Convergence chirping cheerfully, "The dirge...Let's all sing the dirge! I love the dirge!" It's saved both by its brevity—BG knew better than to overplay his hand on this one—and the sheer loveliness of its gentle organ and acoustic guitar accompaniment. The gem of the album, however, has to be the title track, "Kostroma, mon amour," a broken-hearted valentine of a song, to that ficklest of lovers, Russia: a diamond-faceted and absolutely flawless song.

In sum, O would be Pilgrim, Kostroma mon amour must be in your collection, but you must be prepared to be patient with it, as you would with an attractive date who insists on wearing sneakers to the prom or who drowns filet mignon in ketchup. Love it, lumps and all.


Notes:

The name of the album is a play on the classic French art-house film Hiroshima, mon Amour...a flick that none of the Bodhisattvas have actually seen, so we're not sure if there's more of a connection than just that. More info about the film can be found here.

"Suvlekhim Takats" would seem to be the name of an individual ("They called him Suvlekhim Takats...") but its provenance remains a total mystery. A Golden Buddha to the first contributor to track down the reference!


Boris Notes

A period when I wanted to record stadium rock-n-roll and ended up recording unadulturated park waltzes instead. All the songs were written on the road. At this time we'd joined up with the Mongolian ensemble "Temudjin": Unfortunately we didn't find the time to record with them, but an authentic bit of Mongolian appears in "Moscow October." "Sing, Sing Lyre," a little known old text by George (Gusnitsky), suddenly leapt up out of a forgotten old notebook and was totally reworked. For solidity, we again recorded at Melodiya, and, although the sound techs were good, we weren't able to get beyond a sense of inhibition. (In the end, the version of "Lyre" recorded at Fontanka was used.) In order to keep the album from being entirely waltzes we recorded "I Need You" and "Suvlekhim Takats"—songs that'd been written in the summer of '88 in Valdai, at the same time as "Captain Voronin," "General Skobodev," "When the Pain Passes" and "Royal Morning." This was the only way to go, even though we played both these songs in all the concerts of the period, giving us an opportunity to go into total overdrive and say everything straight out.

The walls on Pushkinskaya were repainted a Tibetan dark-red color; I went to Nepal and returned—avoiding all the lamas and the mortars [presumably from the Maoist insurgency -trans]—with the album's cover art ready and a desire to re-record all the vocals (which seemed entirely reasonable: after a week spent wandering through caverns and monasteries, one sings far better. Since then, I've always done it that way.) There, at last, the recording of "Gertrude" was also finished; we'd bandied the song all over Russia, but it reached its final form on the main street of Katmandu.

The album turned out very spontaneous and—for that very reason—is dearly loved. This is how Akvarium ought to be. "Precise little sounds": that was the definition of Akvarium even in 1973.

Translated from Songs by Dzhon.