1. “the relationship between man and bird”
Seeing Barbez live is a little like seeing the Elephant Man—something disfigured but beautiful. Fusing traditional Russian music, post-punk cabaret flair, pre-Glasnost Eastern Bloc nightclub atmosphere, and a gypsy caravan feel, Barbez excites and tingles the senses. The experience also is extremely disturbing.
When they took the stage at Northsix recently, I knew I was in store for a show. The lead singer, a tall blonde drink of water, wore old Victorian clothes (a blouse with ruffled collar and heavy petticoat). The rest of the band’s dress ranged from gypsy to 1940s gangster. But it was the music that was the most unique and strange participant that night. It is theatrical show music twisted with rock. It is idiosyncratic, driving, and haunting. “We’re inspired by a lot of intense music,” said guitarist Dan Kauffman. I found myself thinking of a twisted Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The lead singer, Ksenia Vidyaykina, has a dark, rich, and operatic voice. She sings mostly in English, but Russian sneaks in unexpectedly. The music gets under your skin, like a sad, maudlin children’s bedtime song. The assortment of unusual instruments used by the band adds to its cache of attempting something different: violin, accordion, vibraphone, theremin, and iPaq (to sample from as well as to create sounds). It’s hard to compare their music to anything remotely resembling mainstream, but imagine a recipe consisting of Portishead and Joy Division with a Eastern European bent, and a dash of punk.
Their self-titled CD showcases their live show very well, and the songs do not lose in the translation. “The Defiant Bicycle” is light-hearted folly, like carousel music. “Ultimate Disaster” is a Russian punk opera, discordant and fast with a voice that juxtaposes against the music that changes to floating and supernatural. “Sacrifice Poles” was brooding and had a bass line that reminded me of “Kashmir.” “West Rogers Park” consists of a haunting melody and no vocals. “Wisconsin” alternates between airy weepy and driven punk noise with an orchestrated violin. “Tango Ballade” features a guest vocal from the lead singer of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and is quite disturbing. It is a conversation between a husband and wife, and reminds me of something out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The show I caught at Northsix was fascinating to watch. Vidyaykina either stands still at center stage wile belting out the words, watching the audience like a ringmaster at a sideshow, or she dances like a puppet on strings, jerky and raw. The music is ambient at times, allowing Vidyaykina’s voice to hover in your mind, then explodes into Moulin Rouge , bombasts or collapses without giving you a climax. The vaudeville veneer of their show thinly masks something more sinister and tragic beneath, something they never name, but allow you to glimpse nonetheless. Barbez is like nothing you’ve seen or heard before.
2. “we’ll see you on the other side, or maybe in New York”
The first time I listened to Hold Tight The Ropes by Elk City, I liked it. But I didn’t like the album. That changed upon the second listen, and has grown more intense every listen after. There is a rich, lush pop sound present that I haven’t heard in a while. In fact, this is what alternative rock used to be a long time ago, and maybe it’s time to take another look at that time—and the sounds and feelings it produced.
Their press release reads: “Late ’60s psychedelia, early ’70s folk, and mid-’80s first round indie rock all collide within the album’s 11 idiosyncratic tracks.” Not bad, but not close to describing the band. This is such a hard album to classify; the songs have a wide range of influences, and just as I thought I was on to something, the music would change, I would lose the thread, and it would become something new and unique.
Renee LoBue (vocals and piano-bass) stumbled herself for words to describe the band before saying: “We’re an open-ended experimental band.” Experimental has the wrong connotation though to modern music ears. This is a great pop album. But there is a rock context behind it, and beautiful craftsmanship. The songwriting skills of the band are on full display here, but the production work of Ray Ketchum (drums, organs, synths, percussion) also shines.
According to Renee, all three members of the band write every song, and all three members are highly influenced by different music types of music—resulting in a continuous melding of sounds. Overall, I believe there’s an ’80s early indie taste here, along the likes of The Pretenders, Concrete Blonde, and even some of the bands from the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack (Lick the Tins, March Violets, Apartments, Housemartins). That taste has been refined here and lies very, very well in your palette. All songs feature both Renee and Peter (vocals, guitars, harmonica) singing, a device that works splendidly. And the lyrics they write (usually focusing on getting out or reaching for something) are smart and fun. From “Once and for All”:
Oh, the way you sing/you make us want to cry/you grew your nails too long/and we wondered if you did drugs;
From “Don’t Fight”:
I could claim they did me wrong/ but you can’t fly a kite to Paris/there’s no string that long/the television tries to scare us/but we belong;
or from “Indiana”:
Don’t you try to hold me to the truth/I was just trying to talk with you.
“Indiana” starts the album, and is driven pop, catchy with some distorted guitar. “Once and for All” is a folky indie tune. “Smile” is moody and sensous, an atmospheric Leonard Cohen whispering sex (“This one’s for you pretty girl”). “Don’t Fight” is quirky and retro. “Kmart” is a song that builds. “Summer Song” develops nicely and is very ’80’s new wave.
“Hold Tight the Ropes” shows extreme promise, and that promise is of more good things to come. Renee said, “I think we’re a band that people will stumble across many years after all this … people don’t like that they can’t classify us … sometimes it takes a long time to get us.”
Don’t be those people. Check out Elk City’s music. It’ll do you good. It did me good.
Barbez is currently working on a new CD they hope to release by early next summer. For more information and show dates, please visit: http://www.barbez.com/
Elk City will be on tour this summer in the wester United States and will hit Europe in the fall. Look for a new CD sometime next year. For more information and show dates, please visit: http://www.elkcity.net/
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.