New Music: Staraya Derevnya, Kenna

Staraya Derevnya - Traces (Self-released, 2007)

Staraya Derevnya - Onelegged EP (Self-released, 2007)

I've always had a bit of a fascination with Russia. This goes back to around 1993 when I was watching "Wings of the Red Star" in the days when the Discovery Channel was about actually discovering things rather than home-decorating makeovers or high definition blue whales or whatever it is they're doing now. You'd think that the curious history of the MiG-25 or the privilege of walking aboard a Volga-Dnieper Antonov An-124 as a kid would've been enough to spark my interest in the language as well. No such luck: As soon as I hit that Cyrillic alphabet, it was like a brick wall.

And so Russia remains a fascinatingly distant place and paradox, European and Asian and backward and modern and wayward all the same. As the saga with Putin unfolds in the pages of the New York Times Magazine once every two years, its musicians carry on in the Moscow underworld and in the exiled streets abroad. But what do we really know of contemporary Russian music? Most people hear that and think Shostakovitch or Prokofiev if they think anything at all. At worst, they think Gogol Bordello. Yikes.

Maybe Staraya Derevnya isn't at the root of what's happening. Maybe they're totally irrelevant, but I'd like to believe they're not. I'd like to believe that slightly demented piano lines and click-clack bongo percussion and earnest, lo-fi vocals and recordings still have their roots in trad-Russian folk ballads of the peasants that still inhabit the Urals despite the strife and the rush for modernity and the oligarchs and the oil. Their name is Russian, they sing in Russian, it feels like they're singing to Russians... But alas, it is London and Haifa that they call home.

I'd love to be able to point these guys out to you in public. I'd love to tell you their names. But their website and MySpace account (much like their ethos and delivery) are both impenetrable, utterly Russian. What I can discern: They have been around since at least 1999's Expeditions, have a few songs that haven't made it to a record yet, and finished recording this EP in February. They call it acoustic post-punk, and in the first track "Maldives" you can hear that in the scratchy vocals and heavy strumming of the guitars. But "Traces" has to best both the opening cut and the second song, "Offering," with its homemade hissing and four-track charm. It's a beautiful song really, and though Russian is often criticized (like all the Slavic languages) for not sounding "pretty" enough in itself, the two gentlemen I believe to be running this show prove otherwise. The photos of the band on their MySpace page are the same, a visual dichotomy of the music this band offers as a taste of old-world singalongs on the Black Sea clashing with the freak-folk guardians of the new age. It may not be the sound of Russia, but it's a lot closer than gypsy-punk. Spread the word.

Kenna - Black Goodbye Ride (Star Trak/Interscope 2007)

Kenna - The Black Goodbye EP / Star Trak/Interscope

Last Night I Dreamt That Kenna Talked to Me

Patrick: New sacred cow! Is it really...?

Hypothetical Kenna Zemedkun: Funny.

P: Couldn't resist. I thought you were dead! Or rather, I guess I had less freetime to follow your progress post-New Sacred Cow. Whatever happened to you, anyway?

HKZ: The basic background is the eldest son of an Ethiopian immigrant hears U2's The Joshua Tree and flips out, tries to figure out a way to make the same kind of grandiose, sweeping statements with his own music. Lucky for me I met a guy in high school who had the production skills to help out: Chad Hugo. I went on "Subterranean" a few years ago after the "Freetime" video hit and was getting ready to be a big deal. Chad helped me produce the EP, naturally. In 2005 I said Make Sure They See My Face was 95% finished. And then... Then there were label troubles with Star Trak where they delayed it and then in '06 we were still working through them, telling people the record was still coming but it just didn't work out. The "Out of Control" single was released last December on iTunes and that's on this EP too. So we're aiming for a June 5th release date with the full-length, that's what we put on the back of the jewel case for this latest EP anyway. Also, you can lay off the references. I get it, you're witty, you're a blogger, you're important. We all get it.

P: Since you brought it up, I feel obligated as a blogosphericist to point out that you have a lot of disparate influences that you have always hit hard but seem particularly indebted to on this one. People bring up Radiohead a lot, which on something like "Better Wise Up" sounds pretty accurate. So, "Better Wise Up"? Thom Yorke's "Black Swan"? Get that a lot too?

HKZ: Only on my own forums.

P: "Out of Control" starts off like a synth-blasting M83 song before morphing rather quickly into another song hipsters know well, "Losing My Edge." But it sounds more like you copped that directly from Killing Joke's "Change" than from its better-known ripoff. And the explosions to define that, yes, here is the end of the song? A little unnecessary, no?

HKZ: Probably to all of the above. But it's all in what you hear, isn't it? It's easy to say that the subtle things, the musical references that make inadequate people feel better about themselves, that's where all the magic in the music is happening. But sometimes it's the bigger picture. To me, it's about people recognizing that I want people to share in my well-being. I say this on the MySpace, in the mission statement, all of it. I see music as a positive force and I try to play to those strengths. Hopefully everyone takes a little away from it, for their own betterment.

P: "Black Goodbye Ride" is the longest one on this EP, but it's a corker in such a quiet way. Restrained for the most part, not necessarily bombastic or overwrought with dynamics, a coy way to wrap up this very brief EP. Tell me a little bit about what we're supposed to expect for Make Sure They See My Face. Is it more like the slower, the more atmospheric? Or is it in-your-face Paris '07-cum-U2?

HKZ: If I did that, I'd have to let you hear the album. Forget it, I know you're on Oink and Indietorrents.

P: But my ratio sucks on both of them. They'll probably kick me off. Have you seen the rules? Totally stringent! It's like they're...

HKZ: Don't you dare.

P: ...Hell bent on it? Kenna get a witness!

HKZ: We're so finished. You're about to fall asleep anyw