You know that definitive Western BG & Aquarium compilation we've all been waiting for? Er, this was probably it. Well compiled, well designed, well packaged—the CD's only real fault was its too-brief and too-limited distribution. I remember finding a pile of these things at Tower Records in Harvard Square, back in 1994. I couldn't believe my eyes. After years of piecing together my Aquarium collection on scratchy vinyl and Soviet-quality cassettes, here was genuine, 200-proof Russian-language Aquarium—on CD! Aquarium on CD!!! Greedily sucking in the song list with my eyes, I remember thinking, "Oh man, Russian Album songs are on this! Russian Album songs without the hiss!" I took the precious relic home, shut off the lights, unplugged the phone, and enjoyed an hour of BG, for the first time in crystalline digital sound. Bliss. I went back to Tower a few days later to buy a couple of more copies for reserve, gifts, etc. There were none left, and I've seen none since. It's out of print, but can still occasionally be found used in good condition. Try the amazing Gemm used music locator; if it's out there, they'll know about it. Just be sure to spell Grebenshikov with a "ch."
Let's note one thing first off: 1991-1994 is not a rarity to be sought out by song completists. All of the tracks are totally accessible from other sources; namely Archive(1991), The Russian Album (1992), Favorite Songs of Ramses IV (1993), Kostroma, mon Amour (1994), Sands of Petersburg and Vertinsky Songs (1994). But a strange alchemy is at work on this collection; a sparkling array of aural diamonds placed in a new setting that shows off their facets to new advantage. The result, as Lize noted upon recently finding her own copy, is nothing less than "sublime."
One secret to 1991-1994's special appeal lies in its fine song selections and well-nigh perfect pacing, orchestrated by BG himself, along with a Franco-Russian collaborator, Alexis Ipatovtsov. They were very smart. Rather than attempting a broad "introduction" to Aquarium, focusing on historically and sociologically significant songs, they limited themselves to four key years of BG's "Russian period." The songs chosen tend to be especially strong melodically, with strong vocal performances that transcend barriers of language—in other words, they remembered that they were compiling for a non-Russian-speaking audience, and made their decisions accordingly. (It worked. As I've noted before, this cd has proven to be a truly amazing proselytizing tool among music-loving friends with no particular knowledge of Russia or Russian.) The packaging is great, with good pictures, detailed liner notes in French and English, and John Baylin's amazing rhyme-rhythm-and-meaning translation of "Volga Boatsman."
Another influence at work on 1991-1994 is what I'll call the "French connection." The French, after all, already venerated Vladimir Vissotsky, who possessed that certain Euro-male world-weariness; the dissolute, boozy, unshaven appeal that made guys like Serge Gainsbourg into stars. Vissotsky had also earned quasi-French cultural citizenship by scoring a marriage with lovely French actress Marina Vlady. So it's not surprising that, on this album cover, Boris looks appealingly dissolute, boozy, unshaven, world-weary—hell, he looks French. Or at the very least, he looks Vissotsky-esque in the extreme. The inclusion of several Vertinsky songs may also have been influenced by that singer's apparent popularity in France. The notes also remind listeners that a big window display for Radio Silence stood on the Champs-Elysses for "a whole month" in 1989.
The non-Russian-ear analysis works well in analyzing the track list: The collection's first song, coincidentally or not, is the same Vertinsky song that ended BG's previous Western outing, the ill-starred Radio Silence. This is not, however, the RS version of the song; it's the later, far-superior Vertinsky Songs rendering. Hauntingly beautiful, showcasing BG's emotive vocals, and—above all—very brief, the song immediately lays BG's bardic credentials are on the table. Voila! Having drawn the musical Vissotsky parallel, BG now tips his Western hand with the George Harrison-esque "Flyer," from Ramses IV. Ringing with sitars and singing saws, and a "You Can't Always Get What You Want" children's choir at the end, the song's trappings are familiar to Western ears, especially the ears of old hippies. Deliberately eschewing RS-style attempts at modern Western pop, BG simply does the kind of psychedelic retro he loves (and performs) best. (Looking back on BG's 2000 U.S. tour, that's the stuff I really missed. The show was just too popsa!)
Next comes a more orchestrated bardic work, "Kostroma, mon Amour," from the album of the same name. Again, this is a song where the emotive qualities of BG's singing transcend lyrical content. Whether or not you speak the lingo, it'll still give you the chills. Am I hammering this point to death? Well, again, it's just because that's the quality that makes this cd such a damned good proselytizing tool!
After that, another shimmering gem—1991's transitional-Aquarium, pre-BG Band chestnut, "When the Pain Goes Away." And then we plunge into Russian Album territory with the powerful trio of "Nikita of Riazan," "Your Ladyship," and "Volga Boatsman." Then a quick pull-back from the brilliance—with the quiet, cheerful respite of "Village Ladies and Gentlemen" from Sands of Petersburg. What a wonderfully offbeat, eclectic choice! Removed from the purgatorial limbo of Sands, and raised into the company of Russian Album classics, this sweet little song takes on a rather dignified bearing. Then back into Vertinsky land with "Without Women," and on to—a personal favorite—"Moscow October," the contours of which have been perfectly described by Dzhon: "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." Memo to Mimoza: the orchestration part powerfully recalls Sting's "Russians."
Now that we've been given a chance to rest, to leisurely examine BG's many moods—(Memo to Wish List: A TV-only album: "The Many Moods of Boris." Or a whole series: "Boris in a Blue Mood." "Boris in a Sensual Mood." Does K-Tel still exist?! Let me know by midnight Tuesday or this offer will vanish forever!). Anyway, 1991-1994 now brings us back for a second trio of Russian Album masterworks: "Sirin, Alkonost Gamayun," "Stampeding Horses," and "Elizaveta." The 70's-rock sound of "I Need You," from Kostroma, follows, and then a final Vertinsky song, "To Love Quietly," closes the collection. Brilliant.
One of these days, I'll transcribe the liner notes from the cd to add to this review. They're interesting. Or perhaps my fellow 1991-1994 believer, Lize, would prefer to take on that honorable task?
Ask and ye shall etc. Our most high holy Lize delivers the liner notes (not by Boris, see below for the credit):
In Russia, Boris Grebenshikov needs no introducing: furthermore, the singer, poet, musician and leader of the legendary band "Aquarium" is simply known as BG.
In the west BG also means something. MTV audiences still remember his almost entirely English sung album, released five years ago by CBS/Columbia, which remained for a whole month in the window of a big record store on the Champs-Elysees. While some listeners found it hard to figure out the original culture of the author, others felt its "Russian spirit" was obvious. But this was just one out of many of BG's experiences, which allowed him to work in modern recording studios, travel through North America and Europe and meet George Harrison, David Bowie, Lou Reed and their likes. This western episode surely cannot sum up BG's rich career.
Forty year old Grebenshikov belongs to the USSR's "lost generation" of the Brezhnev stagnation period which followed the Krushchev thaw: nothing was moving and there was no hope for change. It was the generation of "outer" emigrates—who crossed borders—and "inner" emigrates who remained and appeared—appeared only—like normal citizens: the generation of "doormen and watchmen" as Grebenshikov puts it, who thus followed the social obligation of working, while devoting their life to music, painting, photography or samizdat.
This generation fed on the Beatles' music. BG listened to it on the jammed waves of "Voice of America": "it was then I understood why I was on earth…it wasn't just the music—the Beatles had established a certain aesthetical code." Through the Beatles, Boris immersed himself not only in rock 'n roll but also in the whole western counterculture, eastern philosophies and religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism), psychedelia, mysticism, Celtic culture and literature. He became the first, and probably the best Russian translator of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Pushkin in the 19th century, Grebenshikov played the part of "interpreter" of foreign cultures.
BG never puts forward his national identity. "A Russian does not need to show or to prove that he is Russian, it is in his bones." Yet BG, who is totally bilingual, not only interprets other cultures but also his own. In his youth he fell under the aristocratic charm of Alexander Vertinsky, a Russian singer from the beginning of the century, whose repertoire BG has now made his own. In fact, he just recorded a whole album of Vertinsky's songs.
Another strong influence was that of the poets-authors-composers-singers, the "bards" as the Russians call them, like Visotsky and especially Okudjava and Kilatchkin. They were truly melody and lyrics' aesthetes who, following Grebenshikov's expression, escaped the "male hangover motif." It is said Pushkin complained about people repeating that there could be no poetry in the Russian language. The same affirmation was made about rock 'n roll. Grebenshikov's great merit is his ability to fully assimilate and adapt rock 'n roll aesthetics (in a wide appreciation: Beatles, Tolkien, Dylan, Ginsberg…) to the peculiarities of the Russian language and culture. Like Okudjava in the sixties-seventies, Grebenshikov is the Russian bard of the eighties and nineties.
In Grebenshikov's songs, the melody is more important than the rhythm, and the lyrics take pride of place. In fact, each of BG's songs should be accompanied by comments on the reason and meaning of this or that line. Intellectuals acknowledge Grebenshikov as a talented poet, and trace his poetic roots back to the works of the early 20th century Decadents. Yet Grebenshikov does not pay much attention to the relative obscurity of his lyrics. For him, a song can be interpreted at various levels. What counts is what one feels when listening t o it. In fact, like the Celtic bards, he endows words with a sacred personality: they have their own energy, and poetry is like incantation.
Twenty out of Grebenshikov's twenty-five years of musical career were with the group Aquarium. At various periods of its history, Aquarium was a "family", a "way of living" (like the Grateful Dead), or more simply Grebenshikov's band. But it always remained a concept: whoever took part in it was at that time the best fit to incarnate and realize this concept. BG & Co. always lived in their own world, while they remained accessible to the outside world—which is what the name Aquarium infers.
Now the band comprises seven musicians (two guitars, accordion, flute, tablas, bass and drums). Their music is a unique mixture of popular Russian and Celtic traditions with a touch of rock 'n roll, sometimes reggae, blues, folk music, but without any vulgar imitation ever. In short, it's the new popular Russian music which you can discover.
(Used by permission of "Journale la Ville" Paris)