The Ukrainians’ The Ukrainians and Respublika

cover art for The UkrainiansBig Earl Sellar wrote this review.

There are times when I feel a certain privilege in reviewing certain albums. Growing up in Alberta, I was exposed to a couple of traditions on a fairly regular basis: those of the First Nations of this land; and that of the Ukrainians. During exodus of the Ukraine from their land from the late 1890s to the mid 1920s, many landed in this province, tempted by free, fertile farmland. The government at the time figured these people could easily develop the Prairie and Parkland into productive farms, and would be readily able to handle the cold winters. In Edmonton, where I live, there is a massive population of their descendants, so much so that the city keeps Christmas lights going until after the Ukrainian holiday celebration in January, based on the old Gregorian calendar. A perogy (a dough dumpling stuffed with potatoes, cabbage, onions, and/or cheese) is a virtual staple in our diets, and other staples from the Ukrainian tradition (kobasa sausage, cabbage rolls, bliney) are as commonly consumed as, say, sushi. And although I’m of Celtic heritage, I’ve always felt kinship with the similarly displaced Ukrainians; hell, one of ’em’s my longtime friend and next-door neighbour Terra. A good folk.

And although this British band gets tagged as exotic or as the “Russian-music Pogues,” The Ukrainians simply have updated a beautiful music tradition in the same vein as that “Irish-music” group. For example, on their self-titled debut, they do an arrangement of the traditional dance “Hopak” at Dervish speed. I’ve heard this song a hundred times in my life, and this band does a killer version. But most of this disc is dedicated to compositions written in their tradition. Indeed, the beautiful anthem “Cherez Richku, Cherez Hai,” sounds like some lost song of the tradition, even with the Dee Dee Ramone-inspired bass line. Even though the disc drags a bit at times, it’s uniformly brilliant, although the late 1980s’ indie production quality is sometimes a little drab for the fire of the music.

cover art for RespublikaWhich brings us to their latest release, Respublika. Simply put, this disc is a monster. Blasting the tradition through a filter of classic British punk, The Ukrainians have recorded one of the best albums of the year. From the relentless mosh of the opener “You Deceived Me,” with pit-approved rhythm fighting for room with mandolin, you know that you’re in for a true genre-mashing mind blow. “The Pine Tree Was Burning” slows the tempo, but doesn’t lighten the attack, which owes far more to metal than to tsymbaly toting traditionalists. I mean, if I ever catch these guys live, I’m starting the Pit; to hell with the violin and mandolin flourishes! This is frankly the direction I wish the Pogues had taken: the harder, rougher road. Let’s face it, much northern European traditional dance music wasn’t meant to be played pretty and delicate. These traditions have always meant to allow the listener to become dervish-like, flailing one’s way towards the gods and clan, not sitting at the side and nodding along politely.

Respublika also includes two Sex Pistols covers, inclusions from a previous-released EP. Although a Ukrainians take on “Pretty Vacant” is a great idea, perhaps one shot was enough, though I’d opt for their version of “Anarchy In The UK.” The production is crisp and dense, with the best drums I’ve heard on a disc in a while, courtesy of skinmiester Woody. If there’s anything missing in the mix, I’d have prefer a denser guitar sound, rather like what cofounder Peter Solowka brewed up in his previous band The Wedding Present — although, frankly, the Ukrainians are far more consistent than TWP ever was. The CD is enhanced with what was is basically the band’s entire website as of the disc’s creation in September 2002; it’s a little low-featured, but at least has some extra MP3s, without the cheesy Macromedia interface.

After months and months (and months!) of reviewing music that was a little too “pretty” for my tastes, the smack of The Ukrainians is an extremely welcome repast. Although the debut is great, Respublika is definitely in my top five discs of the year. It might be a tad heavy for some listeners, but for Old Man Punks like me, it’s a kick in the World booty. Go buy now!

(Omnium, 1991)
(Omnium/Zirka Records, 2002)

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Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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