Kino Proby: Live at the Big Easy

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.

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper: After

Anti-corporeal appeal

Lady Lamb provides an out-of-body experience

There’s a bit of advice going around musicians’ circles lately that runs this way: Be a good person first, act like a professional, and it will be a hell of a lot easier having yourself a bit of a music career. Don’t act like a “rock star.”

Which: Sure.

But then you run across a sentence like this: “No one in the industry cares about how good your music is. They care about how successful you have become on your own.”

That’s a variation of the whole argument that talent is worthless without work ethic, and I generally agree with it, as long as we also all agree that hard work will only take you so far if your voice isn’t quite compelling or your songs are forgettable or, no matter how much technical skill you possess on your instruments, you have bad taste.

Because the opposite of those things is Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s Aly Spaltro, and she didn’t have Rolling Stone exclusively release the stream of her album because she’s a hard worker with a good PR person. Rolling Stone did that because her new album is fucking awesome. Absolutely fucking awesome.

I’m going to spend a bunch of words trying to describe why I think that is, but it’s not really a logical thing, awesomeness. It’s a primal reaction. Sub-cerebral.

And it’s this theme of the mind’s relation to the body, the soul’s relation to the bag of skin that holds it in, that is at the heart of Lady Lamb’s After. Quite literally the “Vena Cava,” which leads the album.

The guitar tone, thanks to her continuing collaboration with producer Nadim Issa, is just as warm as her first proper full-length, Riplely Pine, that’s for sure, grimy and rough without being amateurish. And Spaltro throws back to that record by declaring “there ain’t no aubergine in my blood” when the chorus ramps up into a rock tune, as is her wont.

But “how strange we all are/ Animal hearts/ Pumping animal blood.” Like the way Moby morphed those delta blues tunes into futuristic anthems, so does Spaltrow create the most ancient of contemporary rock pop in “Spat Out Spit,” a piece as aggressive as its title and welcoming as a cradle. The open is table-setting, a scene so mundane that Spaltrow peels an orange in idleness, but the drums are a clacking off-beat, a jazzy hip-hop, and it’s no surprise when the chorus is huge and demanding: “Have I been asleep this whole damn time / Dreaming up a life?”

What’s a dream and what’s real? By the finish, the chorus is cut through with jagged electric guitar and Lady Lamb is completely disembodied. “I left my body in the bed,” she shouts through reverb. But her head, it floated through the ceiling.

This is certainly heady stuff. She can make the mendacity of eggs for breakfast in “Penny Licks” serve as stark setting, pull the listener along with the bounce of Voxtrot or Erin McKeown, then just all of a sudden go for the throat: “We will crane our necks/ We do not wish to make a baby … We were not built to raise this city up … We do not wish to start a family… We were not made to build this city up.”

Reproduction? The future? Who can be bothered? Truly, “you’re only a handsome animal,” Spaltro reminds us in the soaring and, frankly, thrilling “Violent Clementine.” The production here by Issa is inventive and crazy smart. The pairing of their voices is the only non-Spaltro vocal on the album and it is previewed by a pair of dualed instruments. First, we get a tambourine and clawhammer banjo. Second, a digitized and blooping bass and a drum kit. Then all of a sudden they are smashed together and it works way better than it should.

All of which is prelude to a gloriously soaring horn section in the bridge, big and stomping and etching a wide-open expanse.

There is a musical theater effect to most of the 12 songs here, strong narrative threads that only touch on love when it’s part of the story and are absurdist in their unpredictability. The result is to make the tiny grand, to inflate the every day with importance and meaning. Which is all to bring this out-of-body experience full circle.

The body is enough. Stop thinking so much.

Stop for a minute “just to hear the chorus,” Spaltro teases on the truly catchy “Milk Duds,” which has a quick strum and a tambourine and kick drum in lock step to create a four on the floor appropriate for “when you get back to Brooklyn.” This is organic pop as counterpoint to the increasingly digital contemporary fare. The handclaps are icing. It should be on one of those WB shows when everything’s going right.

And “Ten” will be that same scene in nostalgic retrospective a few seasons later, nothing but vocals and the picked electric guitar, Spaltro’s vocals doubled to emphasize the remembered relationships: “My mother, she keeps a journal / Of her childhood memories, as they return.” But that nostalgia is matter-of-fact, cognizant once again of our ephemeral nature.

“There’s a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes,” she sings, lingering over the words, “once our eyes finally close.” And the horns swell up again for a 15-second coda that’s an artful tie-in to the album’s openers.

That it goes on for six minutes, just vocals and guitar, and maintains intensity and interest all that time speaks to the deep well of talent Spaltro draws upon. Her style is her own, she commands attention, and she is playful enough that it never feels like too much work to keep up with her.

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper has already in these two albums with Issa a body of work with so much to dig into and so much to consider. All of that and easy on the ears, too.

Photo credit: Shervin Lainez.