Whenever I’m in a faraway place for the first time, one of my priorities is to figure out where the best record stores are and find my way there. This almost always results in finding something I’ve been seeking forever, or something astoundingly new, at least to me (it also usually results in my getting lost). When I was in Prague in July, the consensus was that the record store I needed to visit was called Rocksters. I nearly missed it, since it was tucked away in an alley and up a flight of stairs. But perverance paid off: it was exactly what a record store should be, with plenty of good records and good advice from the woman at the counter (she steered me away from the grindcore and gave me plenty of time to listen to the things that looked interesting). I learned about an amazing punk rock band called Zeměžluč (from Brno), which has been busy being melodically angry since the late 1980s. I also picked up a sampler from the label that seems to be the Most Worth Knowing About in Prague, which goes by the unassuming name of Indies Scope. (I also had a hard time not running into the amazing postcard/ book-bag/ tee-shirt conveyor, Fun Explosive, which has achieved blanket coverage of Prague’s expansive gift-store scene; sampled at the left).
A lot of people pass through Prague, so it’s not surprising that musical influences have proliferated along with all the visitors. Add to that the fact that Indies Scope seems to be committed to be as eclectic as possible (a luxury afforded by a smallish scene), and the result is a pretty broad spectrum of artists: the only ones not included are punk and metal, and I have the sense they’ve got enough support (label and otherwise) in Prague. Bands on the label brandish American blues, British folk, and even classical sounds, and some venture (falteringly) into hip-hop, post-punk and dance. A critical mass, though, are recognizably “folk” in a very Eastern European vein: most traditionally so on Prosti Dumi’s “Aide Na Balnana” CD (2007), a Bulgarian-Czech hybrid with jagged accordians ablare. The very strong self-titled CD by Jananas (2011) swerves toward pop, and judging from youtube evidence, Europop of an unbearably cheesy might be in their future (it’s a fine line, apparently). And a band that embodies Indies Scope’s eclecticism are the Yellow Sisters, who went from edgy Czech folk on their first CD (Singalana, 2006) to feminist-gospel-Africana (think “Lion King”: it’s that approachable) on “Tubab Woman” (2010), to children’s music on this year’s “Zvěřinec.” Then there’s this matter of their two hip-hop songs on the topic of breast-feeding, which you have to see to believe.
Of the large and varied array of musicians who have appeared on Indies Sounds, the two that I keep coming back to are Dva and Tara Fuki. Dva comes closest to my lazy approximation of pop perfection, which (these days) has its needle pointed to Swedish artists like Lykke Li and Lasse Lindh, who I’m sure I’ll be writing about soon enough. Exhibit A: Dva’s song “Tatanc,” which features the chorus “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which happens to be the name of incredible songs by those two bands farther to the north. And it’s quite a bit better than either of those. As I hope you’ll be able to figure out from the video I’ve posted below, their edge lies in their assuredness, their ability to stretch traditional musical forms into the realm of the postmodern, and, above all, Bára Kratochvílová’s sinuous tenor saxophone, which elevates what might have been just another tape-loopish electro sound to stratospheric levels. They sound a bit like the Leeds post-punk band Delta 5, only quite a bit more melodic (and without the bass guitars or the drums); their most recent CD “Hu” is their best, so the future is promising.
Tara Fuki (pictured at the right) are Andrea Konstankiewicz (who’s Polish) and Dorota Blahutova (from Brno): two women, two amazing voices, two amazing cellos (or at least what they do with them is amazing). They shone especially on their debut CD “Piosenki Do Snu” (2001) which means “Songs for Sleeping” in Polish: this must be the kind of sleeping my cat does when she kicks her heels against the pillow. All the lyrics on this one, and most of the lyrics on their next three, are in Polish, which (apparently) has “softer vowels and consonants." I’ve always thought the cello was the best “classical” instrument to appeal to a rock, or even punk, sensibility, because its sound fills up so much space without having to be plugged into anything; and that’s certainly the case here. It doesn’t hurt that both singers have incredible range and an uncanny bond with one another’s voices and instruments. Witness “Pada” (listen here), which builds from a sexy whisper-cello back-and-forth to a rocking climax. They’ve gotten slower, jazzier, and sparser as the years have progressed, but are still very much worth tracking down: “Piosenki Do Snu” is still available one mp3 at a time on amazon, and the rest (including the very good “Kapka” from 2003), are on itunes.
It may be that the cello, played with hard edges the way Tara Fuki does, and the tenor saxophone, are exactly the right complement to the Czech and Polish languages, which have plenty of hard edges of their own. Or, as likely, Dva and Tara Fuki would be hard to beat whatever language they used. But I’m glad they’re sticking with the one(s) they know best: their vowels and consonants are more than edgy enough for me.
This week's video: “Nunovo Tango,” recorded live on Dnipropetrovsk TV: