The Ukrainians,
(Omnium, 2002)

Many bands try to mix traditional music with modern rock. It's an understandable impulse -- folk music was the rock of its day -- and several bands do it quite well. But I have never heard a more perfect blending of old and new than the Ukrainians' Respublika.

Perhaps it's because, for all its modern influences, Respublika is clearly honoring the traditional music as it stands. This is a hyperbolic, platonic ideal of traditional Ukrainian music, passionate, intense and fiery, with a stronger regional flavor than a traditional playing would permit.

I've heard "Three Red Roses" played in the full traditional style and it sounded nowhere near as authentic as the caffeinated version here. The patriotic "Oh, Ukraine" does the country far more honor on this album than sung in the timebound, dry, "correct" way. Not every song is traditional, but the Ukrainians' style makes even modern tunes sound time-tested and weathered. There's a wonderful cover of "Anarchy in the UK" that simply plows the original into the ground. The new political tune "Srebrenica" mocks Ukrainian soldiers for their failures to protect Muslim civilians in the 1995 conflicts with Serbian paramilitaries. New as the song must be, it blends in with the oldest of the songs on the album.

The songs themselves are wonderful bipolar riots, bouncing between grim humor and lighthearted tragedy. "Let's Fill Up Our Drinking Cups, Brothers" sums up the spirit of the album, as soldiers exhort each other to drink and be merry, chastise themselves for merriness in the face of death, and resolve to drink harder while they still can. No matter how sad the story, the music charges ahead with fatalistic energy. These are songs that have somewhere to go, and they can't hang around pondering on the way. "The Pine Tree" is a lament for lost innocence and youth, and minor key interludes between the verses try to ground the song, but at the same time seem to mock its own maudlin attitude.

Humor pervades their performance, through vocal exaggerations and musical tricks accessible even to those with no clue what's being said. The tragic "Srebrenica" takes a moment to allow a bit of harmonizing familiar to anyone who's heard "At The Hop." The sheer incongruity of the lighthearted moments in songs of blizzard intensity is enough to call a delighted cackle from any listener.

Respublika is treat on the strength of its music alone, but the Ukrainians must have been feeling generous. The CD is enhanced with even more music and information on the band. The liner notes accompanying the CD don't give full lyrics sheets, but there's no way the average Western listener could hope to sing along with this music. Instead there are useful, brief descriptions of the music's story and history.

Respublika is addictive, mood-altering music, layered enough to win over nearly anyone, direct enough to do it on first hearing. Luckily for fans and those who will become fans, the Ukrainians have made it easy to get a fix. Let yourself be hooked.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 May 2003

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