I don’t understand Russian, nor do I understand the people who call themselves Russian. I blame Sting for this, as I do for most of my other irrational misunderstandings. You know, Dream of the Blue Turtles, side one, song three. The Prokofiev rip. “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Of course, he was trying to make sense of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, hoping Reagan and Chernenko weren’t as batshit crazy as they seemed, and that sanity would prevail over Cold War dogma, if for no other reason than it’s parental instinct to protect one’s young from harm, even on a global scale. But I was, like, 14 at the time, didn’t understand the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and was left wondering why Russians might not love their children. Why, I thought, couldn’t we all just hold hands and shout “Baaaaaawn in the Yooou Ess Ayyy?”
I think the closest I’ve ever come to understanding Russian was the time I took a Danish exchange student out to a Kinks concert, in 1989. Of course, that had nothing to do with Russia, but it was about as internationally sophisticated as I got then, since Denmark (where she was from) and the UK (where the Kinks were from) were closer to Russia than New Jersey (where I was from) or western Pennsylvania (where the concert was).
So, I’ll say it again—I don’t understand Russian.
I do, however, recall being excited to hear Russian rock and roll at one point in time. In the days of perestroika—when Gorbachev replaced Chernenko and it looked like our rival nations might actually get around to talking to one another, if only Reagan could stop drooling on The Button—I recall hearing about great rock bands playing in secret behind the Iron Curtain. Acts like Autograph (not the “Turn Up the Radio” guys”) and Boris Grebenshikov were supposed to be geniuses toiling under oppressive regimes, and I couldn’t wait to hear them. Grebenshikov eventually got a US record deal. The record sucked. I gave up wanting to hear Russian rock.
I chalked it up to the fact that I don’t understand Russian. There was something I was missing.
I thought I might be warming to the whole post-Soviet musique russe thing the first time I heard and saw Gogol Bordello. They were on NPR, and sounded like a swirling storm of sound, and live, they brought an amazing amount of crazy-ass energy to the stage. Their singer looked like he stepped out of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and his band appeared to be a roving pack of Supergypsies from the farthest corner of eastern Europe. Finally, I had found a Russian band that made sense to me. Of course, I came to find out that they were actually from the lower east side of Manhattan. At least the singer is Ukrainian.
So call me a little apprehensive when a promo dude pitched me something called Mumiy Troll, particularly when I found out the name of the record he was sending me was Polar Bear. Great, I thought, Russian songs about Arctic wildlife. Can’t say no. Can’t wait.
I might not understand Russian, but I do understand rock. And Mumiy Troll rocks. “Polar Bear,” as it turns out, is about a backdoor-creepin’ lover man (like a Russian Mickey Thomas) who gets caught in a lie. The music has all the syncopated bluster of the best post-punk—the insistent rhythm, the noisy guitars, layered in behind a sneering singer. Ilya Lagutenko plays the part exceptionally well, even though the nature of the lie and the players involved are somewhat confusing:
That guy is crying
Bet my girlfriend’s now in hiding
She went and told him
That I kinda done some lying
That ain’t my problem
I don’t need to give excuses
I’ll find another
I don’t need no sorry losers.
I wonder how you say, “Oh snap!” in Russian.
Then you get the chorus, which is apparently in some Russian dialect, and I don’t understand Russian, but that’s okay, cuz there’s a chick singer who translates for him:
Is this a dream or more?
You’re a polar bear
Goddammit—that part’s in English, and I still don’t understand it! And you know what? I don’t care! I’m too busy nodding my head, drumming my fingers, and scaring off anyone or thing in a 20-foot radius of me. This is fucking cool—the singer’s persona is an arrogant tool, but he’s a cool tool, cocksure and supercilious. And he probably went from singing this kiss-off to prowling around some club so he could woo and later bed some other … polar bear.
The Polar Bear EP contains six additional remixes of the song, which are fine, if you like that sort of thing (remixes typically don’t float my boat, or tie my babushka, or chill my borscht). It also has a B-side in “Paradise Ahead,” which ups the synth quotient and drops the tempo a bit. There’s a distinctive Eighties vibe about it, and Lagutenko does a pretty good Daniel Ash voice. It’s still cool, but it doesn’t smack you the same way that “Polar Bear” does.
Apparently these guys are huge in Russia; according to their Wikipedia page (and Wikipedia, as we know, is never wrong), the video for their song “Vladivostok 2000” was the first shown on MTV Russia (hey—MTV plays music videos somewhere on the planet?). Their impact in the US will probably be muted, cuz there’s no Kanye remix or Bieberrific special guest to get them on what passes for the radio these days. No matter; you should still give Mumiy Troll a listen. I couldn’t say no, and you shouldn’t, either.
And, as fate would have it, we here at Popdose have copies of the Polar Bear EP to give away to two lucky readers. Just send your name and mailing address to me in an email with the subject line “Me Polar Bear, Too!” Two random entries will be selected, and the album shipped to the winners shortly thereafter. Deadline is 5:00PM ET Friday, October 8, 2010. Since we’d rather die a horrible, fiery death than share your information with others, I will personally delete all received emails after the winner is selected.