The Ukrainians - Istoriya (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

The Ukrainians

Istoriya (2004)


The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" ("Chekannya") has never sounded as beautiful as it does in the Ukrainian tongue, and The Smith's classic "The Queen is Dead" ("Koroleva Ne Pomerla") is dark and fresh with mandolin's dancing over the minimalist melody. Even The Clash and The Sex Pistols receive an Eastern European makeover with fabulously strange results that sound like a soviet version of The Pogues, not quite as fun, but certainly interesting. Sung almost entirely in Ukrainian, Istoriya is a greatest hits compilation from the Ukrainians, a British band, ironically, that showcases twenty songs from their catalogue of traditional folk music twisted around a punk aesthetic, once again think The Pogues but with a darker tone. Aside from the unique cover songs chosen for credibility and as a reference for the listener to further understand what this music is, where it came from, and why these musicians came together and stayed together to play it, the original material is wonderfully performed and arranged with lots of instruments playing and voices singing (in Ukrainian!), in fact one might miss the cover songs amidst the original material for what this band does is very consistent, not to mention, once again, the language may as well be gibberish to non-Ukrainian speakers, and it's hard to tell one song from the other at first or fifth listen. But sit with this album and you'll be singing right along with whatever words aren't that hard to pronounce.

A friend once told me he could make me a Pogues fan in five minutes, he was right and I aim to take a similar approach here; I can make you, dear reader, a fan of The Ukrainians in ten to fifteen minutes. "Venus in Furs" should be enough to make you interested, but cover songs aren't enough to get to the core, so here I go.

"Durak" begins with an acoustic guitar followed by vocals which then swell with accordions, mandolins, drums, bass, and violins into a fast polka rhythm that drives hard and suddenly ends with only an accordion playing on the fade out. Okay, that was three and a half minutes, I saw you bobbing your head, yeah, just let the music happen and don't get too unnerved by the Ukrainian, I know it's kinda scary, but it won't bite you too hard. The opening track "Telstar" is a wordless melody that changes hands among the band, starting with voices which are joined by mandolins, guitars, more voices, and a hard jungle beat drummer Dave Lee can't seem to get enough of, this is pretty much the formula; hard, dancing rhythms underneath floating melodies with the instrumentation doubling the melody and creating thick harmonic textures. To change the mood, "Oi Divchino" is a lighthearted, up-tempo tune that plays off of a bouncing accordion, I'm not sure what is being said, but it sounds like fill your pint, grab your neighbor, and challenge him to a drinking contest and don't let the increasing tempo make you spill your beer.

The next song I'll sling is "Slava", a creepy little ditty with Rammstein-esque vocals scraping the bottom of the singer's range as he spits strange words over a dark cavern of sounds that build in dynamic and increase in numbers as more and more instruments are added and soon a small female chorus is singing as the drums patiently pound like a machine in the background. Not knowing the language actually makes the mood that much more believable and eerie, and the instrumentation is a perfect extension of singer "Legendary Len" Liggins as he croons and scowls through this music. If you aren't a fan by now, I have time for just one more, the minute and half "Dity Plachut", a very fast instrumental that shows off the chops in this band, particularly the mandolin players.

And there you have it, in ten to fifteen minutes you're a fan, not necessarily a rabid and obsessive fan, but a fan and that's what I intended.