Saturday, October 17, 2009

From Russia with hard love - VulgarGrad

After yesterday’s journey through the grit and grime, moulded by the Gutter Twins into music of astonishing beauty, it seemed like a good idea today to listen to gutter music, raw and unadorned. And so, from the underbelly of Russia, via the dark and dodgy drinking holes of Melbourne, we are greeted with a sleazy smile that you just can’t quite trust, by the self-proclaimed “Kings of Russian criminal sound” from Melbourne, VulgarGrad.

VulgarGrad are six blokes and one woman, bringing us coarse, gritty music from different parts and times of Russia’s more seedy history – the bits that you didn’t get to see beneath the elegance of the Bolshoi Ballet, the spectacle of the Tsars, and the alleged liberation of Perestroika. It’s the life of street crime, home-made tattoos, jails, and things in unmarked paper bags.

And VulgarGrad perfectly capture the rough energy of this shadowy world in their latest album King of Crooks – a wonderful mix of traditional and modern songs, sung by Jacek Koman in a voice that sounds like it has been rubbed down to the bone by too much vodka and too many cigarettes, and backed by a great mix of sounds from bass balalaika, guitar, trombone, trumpet, drums and piano accordion – so raw that you can still smell the blood.

Other instruments and other voices (including, on one track, the beautiful voice of Melbourne-based Tatar singer Zulya Kamalova, of Zulya and the Children of the Underground) join in the mix from time to time, widening the circle of this motley crew but always allowing it to remain true to its rough and ragged roots.

Some of these songs are pretty old, some are pretty new – but they all have the same gutsy spirit, and the new music is very much the sibling, not the child, of the old. Jaunty rhythms, rough and ready melodies, sordid, squalid songs sung by unshaven, dirty men to women who don’t blush, all conjure up a rugged world that sweats and burps through every phrase. But it’s a world where its unholy inhabitants, and its audience, find something that feels surprisingly welcoming and homelike, from the promise to break into heaven and steal God's stuff in "Гоп-со-смыком" ("Natural born thief") to the bawdy "Жопа" (with its chorus line that is best translated as "She's got such a gorgeous arse"), or "Пьянка начинается с бутылки" ("A piss-up begins with a bottle"): a wonderful paradoy of a 70s children's song about making friends with a smile.

King of Crooks is loads of fun to listen to – and, needless to say, a bottle of vodka (preferably bootleg) on the side is an absolute must.

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