I suppose if most people in North America think of Russian music at all, they will either think of the Red Army Chorus extolling the virtues of the "Workers Paradise" by singing "The International", or groups of Cossack dancers doing improbable steps to the sound of balalaikas. Well the "Worker's Paradise" hasn't existed, if it ever really did, since the late 1980s, and Cossacks haven't had much to dance about in years, so you need to throw all those old expectations away when you listen to what contemporary Russian musicians are creating.
Germany and Russia haven't had a history of amicable relationships through the years. The twentieth century was a particularly bad time, as each took turns in occupying the other for extended periods. However, this hasn't stopped Russian musicians being welcomed when they've gone searching for greener pastures in the West as they look to make a living from their craft. Which explains how the Russian group Ersatzmusika comes to be based out of Berlin Germany and is about to release their second CD, Songs Unrecatable, on the German label Asphalt-Tango. (While April 10, 2009 is the release date for the physical disc, you can download and preview the CD at the Asphalt-Tango site above as well as a songbook illustrated by the band's lead singer, Irina Doubrovskaja.)
If you download the songbook one of the first things you'll notice is the lyrics are in English, and that's not because they've been translated, it's because almost all the songs on Songs Unrecantable are sung in that language. Although to be honest lead singer Doubrovskaja's accent is so thick that if you're only listening casually chances are you're going to assume she's singing in Russian. To be fair, it's not just her accent, the music the band plays is so different from what most of us are used to hearing when it comes to Eastern European folk, the combination of the two makes for a sound so alien to our ears you can be easily forgiven for not noticing she is singing in English. It's a little different when native English speaker Thomas Cooper (he also translated all the songs into English) sings on tracks eleven and thirteen, but by then the disc is almost over and the atmosphere been long set.
Before anyone starts jumping to any conclusions about brooding Russians or anything equally stupid, by mood I'm referring to the fact that Doubrovskaja sounds likes a Russian accented Marlene Dietrich. Yet while both she and Dietrich evoke smoke filled cabarets with dim lights, musically, lyrically the two women are miles apart. For while the former's stock in trade was sultry love songs, the latter's lyrics drip irony onto music that tastes of a little bit of everything from Balkan beat box to traditional folk sounds. There's actually something eerily familiar about Ersatzmusika's overall sound that escaped me for the longest time, until it struck me how much they reminded me of The Doors in their slower and more pensive moments.