Let’s get Russian
A live album for a dead rock singer from Kino Proby
The quick back-story on Kino Proby: Three Mainers take a liking to the Russian band Kino, and its legendary lead singer Viktor Tsoi, who died in a car wreck in 1990 after becoming maybe the single most famous Russian rock star (which isn’t saying a whole lot, admittedly, but the guy could definitely rock out and dying early generally helps your rock fame). They put together a tribute band (Kino Proby is Russian for something like “a sampling of Kino,” and Kino, itself, means “film/movies/cinema”) and not only acquired a considerable following playing gigs in the Old Port, but eventually even played in Tsoi’s hometown of St. Petersburg.
Now, they’re scattered about and only get together for a show or two each year. This Friday [January, 2011] they play the Port City Music Hall, in fact, and at the same time release an album called Live at the Big Easy.
Yes, they sing all of their songs in Russian. It’s the first rock/indie rock record released in Portland sung all in a foreign language that I can remember since Jose Ayerve’s Cinco Pesos, released in 2002. Perhaps more impressive, a solid portion of the crowd on the live disc can be heard to sing along in Russian.
And the songs do lend themselves to singalongs. While there may be a perception (perhaps lent by the stateside success of Gorky Park and their hair metal hit “Bang”) that Russian rock is mostly ’80s glam, Kino Proby do great justice to Tsoi’s talents as a songwriter, on the live album churning out some fun pop rock. “Cuckoo” (and please keep in mind that I’m translating Russian titles using my college Russian minor and a dictionary) wouldn’t be out of place in a Phantom Buffalo set, opening with a set of “la-la-la” and featuring a languid downtempo chorus. “Trolley Bus” is classic white-man’s reggae, more Clash than Police, with a throaty and insistent chorus. “Blood Type,” the title song from Kino’s 1988 album, the first to gain international traction, features an homage to Duran Duran’s guitar tone, like, say, what Andy Taylor was rocking on Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
“A Star Called the Sun” gets the best crowd reaction, with a noticeable perk in attention when Jarlath McGuckin (Viktor I) gets to the Russian word for “sun,” “solntsa.” Moving from an opening verse with just bare guitar chords and a bit of high hat, the song fills out into a pop jam, like a quickened waltz with a catchy repeating riff. And when they finish, they transition smoothly into “Cuckoo,” as they do a number of times during the set, borrowing some jam band live tendencies, as they do again when they stretch their encore out past 12 minutes.
Considering they’ve only got three pieces going, that’s tough work. Really, they do the three-piece thing at least as well locally as Loverless, whom they thank during one song break, Paranoid Social Club, or Sidecar Radio. Adam Kurtz (Viktor II), who’s shown before he can shred with imaginary bands, does yeoman’s work holding the melodies together, while Jess Greer (Viktor III – apparently the rest of Kino’s band members don’t do much for Kino Proby – it’s all about Viktor) keeps them tight and focused.
In fact, you get quite familiar with Greer’s drums and McGuckin’s bass as the mix on the album is pretty heavy on the rhythm section. It sounds as though the recording is taken from the crowd and not through the mixing board, so the vocals can be muted and hard to catch at times. And, yes, I understand that none of you will be able to understand the lyrics. Plus, the crowd can be a bit much — not quite big enough sounding to be impressive, just enough over-exuberant at times to make you wonder if there’s a heavy concentration of girlfriends and school buddies.
Most of the time, though, the performance is good enough to get you past any sonic foibles. “Aluminum Cucumbers” (it’s hard to say that translation is solid – I may be missing a word in my dictionary) has a great cowpunk vibe, old-time rock like Chuck Berry, and as sunshiney as anything the Leftovers do. “Me and You” is vampy and dark, with swaggering strut in the bassline, completed by the guitar, something like the clipped keyboard sounds you heard so much of in the ’80s. “Close the Door Behind Me, I’m Leaving” opens with huge guitar riffage, upbeat and forceful without getting metal, and moves into a raging jam that still manages to convey a world-weariness.
Maybe the worst thing about this album is that it makes me feel like a dink for not being way more into this band when they were playing out more regularly five years ago or so [now 13 years ago or so; I still feel this way]. Their schtick never gets old during a long set, they execute the songs very well, and the band they’re paying tribute to still has something to offer the contemporary listener.
Overall, as they say in Russian, it’s ocheen horosho.