Saturday, February 26, 2011

Low-budget review: Lydia Salnikóva's Hallway

Short version: good stuff, but certainly not pop, and somewhat demanding of the listener. You should certainly buy it if you like music for its own sake and habitually give your music your full attention, as Salnikóva's music both demands and rewards the listener's full engagement. (Think of her as a "quality time" musician, who wants you to pay attention to what she's saying, musically and lyrically, rather than know, Gentle Husband Readers, how you get in trouble very rapidly if your wife is trying to talk to you and you're sort of half-listening while trying to watch the game? Well, in her music Salnikova is trying to talk to you, and she expects you to be paying attention, if you see what I mean.)

On the other hand, if your tastes are straight Top-40 and you use music primarily as a sort of background soundtrack for your life, honesty compels me to say that this may not be the album, or the artist, for you. Still, though, I think you should still probably buy it and give her a chance. And if you do decide to give her a try, then give the album an opportunity to sink in over several listenings, as hers is the kind of music that grows on you as it settles in and gets comfortable.

Comparisons between Salnikova and her fellow Bering Strait alumna Natasha Borzilova are inevitable -- wait, you know what? I bet they both get tired of that. So, I had a set of parallels drawn up between them, but I think I shall decree the comparison evitable after all, and I hereby evitate it. So let it not be written, so let it not be done.

Salnikova is a lyricist first and foremost, but she is also a first-class musician. So let's begin with a (somewhat forlorn) attempt to classify her musically, and save the discussion of her lyrical persona for the end.

The young lady has a simply golden singing voice, pure and clear and expressive, and she is a more than accomplished pianist, with sound musical instincts and an uncompromisingly personal voice both lyrically and musically. I don't know what her music would sound like if she had a big budget and could spend a couple of months in a studio with a houseful of musicians and a top-notch professional producer at her disposal -- I'm inclined to believe that Salnikova backed by a full orchestra, on the right song, would blow the doors off the concert hall. But Hallway is a literally home-made album, written and performed and mixed and produced entirely by Salnikova herself, which gives her a somewhat constrained canvas but affords her absolute control of the palette. The result is certainly successful, but it is somewhat hard to classify, though it is definitely (except for the opening cut "This House Isn't Old") not country -- there are times (especially in the early measures of "Beautiful") when she reminds me in some indefinable way of Norah Jones, but even then it's a sort of fleeting impression. It sounds as though she writes most of her songs sitting at a piano; a prototypical Hallway song has lots of right-hand piano chords on quarter notes setting the beat for the singer, and the drum machine has the habit of waiting until after the first verse to show up for the party. Guitars? I'm not she knows they exist.

Hallway has the feel of an exploratory album from an uncompromising artist who has something to say and is looking in each song for exactly the right musical embodiment of what she's trying to get across, without worrying at all about the commercial viability of the final polished result. She's generally successful, though naturally in some songs more than others. It's hard to figure out any way to improve "This House Is Old," for example (which I would think could actually get airplay on a mainstream country station with the right agent), and the rather eerie synthesizer tone she came up with for "Just One" is so exactly right that one almost suspects that the song was written to suit the synthesizer voice rather than the other way around. I mean, I doubt that's how it really happened, but the synthesizer voice is so perfect for the mood of the song that the song might as well have been written for it. The melodic hook that opens the insouciant little "What If It's Love" exactly sets the mood of the song, which is a very feminine mixture of concern, amusement and exasperation with the adorable but relationally clueless guy who may yet mess everything up by being such an idiot. (You Gentle Female know how you love your husband dearly, but you know that every so often you have to prepared for the guy to do something really stupid just because he's a man and men aren't, let's face it, all that bright? Or maybe you did love a guy dearly but he was too much of an idiot to know a good thing when he had you, and eventually you had to give up? Well, you ladies will recognize the tone of this song right away. You will feel empathy and concern for the narrator, who has yet to land the particular clueless wonder she's decided she wants, having yet to figure out how to motivate him to chase her so that she can catch him. But you have to like her because she at least still seems to be fairly cheerful about the whole mess.) On the other hand, on "Trapped" the chorus rather falls apart melodically -- one gets the feeling that Salnikova got exactly the words and chord progressions she wanted and then tried to come up with notes that would fit. But "Trapped" is an exception to the general rule, which is that Salnikova is a creative, disciplined and skilled songcrafter who knows what she wants to say and usually finds the right way to say it. (And even "Trapped" is not a bad song, just one where the melody comes slightly unstuck in the middle.)

It seems to me that you can see Salnikova's determination to give true expression to her artistic vision, without concern for commercialism, in the version of the Russian folk song "Ah Ty Step Shirokaya" that she includes on Hallway. It's worth comparing this to the bluegrass version of "Porushka-Paranya" that Kukuruza came up with and Bering Strait subsequently perfected, and also, if you'll stay with me on this one, to Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" symphony. Russian folk music lies quite outside the European tradition, and a Westerner trying to sing along with a Russian folk tune for the first time is likely to come a cropper...the phrasing can be "irregular" to Western ears, for example, and the melodic lines can be exotic. Tchaikovsky exploited this to great effect in his Second Symphony, in which he takes the melodic line from a Russian folk song, allows a lone French horn to state the theme, and then slowly weaves a Western-style symphony around that folk melody, naturalizing the folk song, as it were, into the Western form. Kukuruza took the folk song "Porushka-Paranya" and reworked both lyrics and music into a foot-stomping bluegrass number that, once the superior musicianship of Bering Strait was turned loose on it, could yank an entire audience to its feet with delight -- but which would have sounded right at home on "Hee-Haw" if you had just taken out the Russian lyrics and substituted English lyrics instead.

But while Salnikova's version of "Ah Ty Step Shirokaya" was cut in a Western studio using a grand piano and a drum machine and a string-voiced synthesizer, the integrity of the original folk melody and rhythm is preserved; if you, Gentle Western Reader, wish to sing along with this one, then you'll have to be prepared for it to take a while for you to figure out where the melody and rhythm are going next. This is not a European symphony that uses a Russian folk song as a foundation, or a Tennessee pickin'-'n'-grinnin' bluegrass piece that was a Russian folk song in a former life. It's a Russian folk song that borrows some Western instruments for a little while. (And it's worth learning to sing along with, I might add.)

As a quick aside...I wonder if Salnikova thinks of Repin's painting of the Volga barge haulers when she sings this song? I myself, at least, can't hear the song without thinking of that painting; and the mood of the music and the mood of the painting are certainly more than compatible.

Salnikova's artistic voice is a profoundly melancholy one, but not a particularly sad one -- indeed, as odd as it may sound, I would describe her predominant mood as melancholy optimism. You can encapsulate it in a seven-word quotation from "Someday":
...I'll be happy again -- you'll see [ever the optimist]
Someday [but certainly a melancholy one]

My very favorite Bering Strait song (and that's really saying something because I love their stuff) is the haunting "Safe In My Lover's Arms," which Salnikova wrote, and which is I think a very typically Salnikovian take on love: the narrator in the song has not given up hope of a happy ending united with her lover, but the emotional moment Salnikova chooses to capture is one of separation and intense longing. Hallway's "Beautiful" is lyrically in exactly that same space, though the musical take is quite different. Salnikova's narrator, loving her man who is perfect in every way except for being far too long absent on a far-too-long business trip, is a true kindred sister to Li Po's "River-Merchant's Wife."

Or take "Now That It's Here," in which Salnikova has fallen head-over-heels in love:
I'm as out of control as I've ever been
And all of my senses seek deeper in
I can barely speak
My knees are weak
But this song isn't about dancing deliriously around in the intoxication of infatuation; this is no "On the Street Where She Lives." Instead we are in the stage where the girl has realized that she has fallen and fallen hard, but is realist enough to know that "follow your heart" is very often a recipe for disaster, and is doing her best to decide what she ought to do:
Minutes are slow-dancing gracefully
They’re trying to help me, I do believe
To figure this out,
What I’m to do now
Now that it’s here
Arm’s length away
Staring me in the face
This wasn’t planned
Wasn’t foreseen
It might make a fool of me
And I’d probably let it…
But as much as Salnikova focuses on difficulties and regrets, "self-pity" is not a word likely to be associated with a Salnikova song. In the break-up song "Just One," for example, the strongest impression is one of regret on her lover's behalf; he is losing as much as she is, but unlike her he doesn't see it and isn't going to get around to regretting it until sometime in the future when it's far too late. Resignation, regret, frustration, a touch of anger...these are all present in "Just One." Self-pity is not.

There is a musical moment on "Forgiven" that captures this bedrock optimism. "Forgiven" is another breakup song, a moderato 6/8 in which Salnikova is bringing out into the open what both she and her long-time lover know: though neither meant for it to happen, they have grown further and further apart and now can both recognize that the relationship has no future. She reaches the chorus, and the music swells and strains in irresolution and tension...
Say, who needs a life of regrets?
Let's just consider all debts....
...and the tension holds for two measures before resolving to the major for the final word...
And on that final chord the music takes us out of the emotional rapids into a place of peace and even a kind of cheerfulness, mimicking perfectly, if only for a moment, the emotional release of letting go and accepting the inevitable and moving on without bitterness.

Now, not every song on the album is a sad song. There is, for example, "Written In My Heart," in which Salnikova (who is of course in reality a very accomplished poet and musician) adopts the persona of one of the rest of us, who are capable of feeling love deeply but lack the artist's gift of expression. Naturally this instantly becomes a song that I have every intention of singing to my wife as soon as I get to Shanghai in a couple of weeks; it's very generous of Salnikova to write a song for us inarticulate folks that says, "I don't know how to say this" and says it exceptionally well. Still, the music has just a hint of sadness in it, as though the narrator is a bit sad that she can't celebrate her lover the way he deserves to be celebrated.

"Once I Thought I Knew," though, is purely triumphant, and is the song that I have every intention of teaching my wife to sing to me...
Once I thought I knew what it’s like
To be touched
But I never knew what it’s like
To be moved this much
Till you shook me to the core
You stopped me in my tracks
Wherever I was before
I’m not going back
Okay, I'm teasing about making Helen sing that to me. But it's a fun song, with its sort of Seventies electric-piano thinking-about-verging-on-funk sound. If this song comes on when I'm out in public with my teenaged children, then I can tell you right now that they're going to get embarrassed by the Groovy Dad Dance that will immediately commence. "Okay, Dad, I don't know you, understand?"

Salnikova (as an artist, I mean -- I have no idea what her personality is like outside of a studio) is somebody who believes, unlike Sinatra, that when one has had a few regrets, it's a waste not to mention them -- but also a pointless misuse to wallow in them. They are part of who you are and how you came to be that person, and they are to be embraced and lived with sans bitterness. The album opens with my favorite cut and ends with Salnikova's, and I think (though she might not agree) that the themes are similar.

"My House Isn't Old" is a song from a heart that has its regrets and burned bridges in its past, but has come to terms with them and sees no reason to run from them:
My house isn’t old, but there’re ghosts in it walking around, ooh-ooh
They don’t show their face, just make ominous whispering sounds, ooh-ooh
So I let them be
They are just restless like me

My house isn’t old, but I think there’s a leak in the roof, ooh-ooh
Now I haven’t seen puddles of water, just droplets of dew, ooh-ooh
So I let them lay
I never minded the rain

You say I should drive the ghosts away
You say I should wipe the water away
Then my house‘ll be bright as day...
And then the Salnikovian twist:
...Just like every other place
Salnikova's characteristic narrator (all her songs are first-person) doesn't have to flee regrets because they don't make her miserable -- indeed, once they have been worked through, they add their own unique, somehow essential flavor to a life deeply and passionately, if not necessarily always prudently, lived.

And then there is the final cut, "When You Open Your Eyes Today." It's an appreciation song (one which happens to have deep personal meaning for me), sung by Salnikova to a person who has touched her life, as well as others', in a powerful and positive way. But the person she is singing to is somebody who seems to have failures in his past...and so Salnikova urges him to embrace that same peace that she herself expressed, way back at the beginning of the album, in "My House Is Old." I'll let this review end, as Hallway itself ends, with these lines:
But if you should remember things
That got broken along the way
Please remember that all those things
Brought you right where you are today
And mine is one of the many lives
That are better for knowing you
So you must’ve done something right
And you must’ve done someone good

When you open your eyes today
I hope there isn’t a cloud in your sky
I hope you float on a stream
From a beautiful dream
Into your beautiful life


UPDATE:If you've just come here from Ms. Salnikova's blog, welcome! I hope you enjoyed it. If you did...well, alas, I fear this post is not very representative of most of my blog posts, which are overwhelmingly composed of things that amused me and that I blogged here so that I could find them again, or else of journals of trips with the family, such as this one of a trip with some of my kids to West Virginia, or this one of the trip to Shanghai where I fell hopelessly in love with the girl I married three months later...interesting to me, naturally, but I don't expect them to interest anybody else. Every so often, though, a song or book or work of art will move me deeply enough to draw a response. So here's what I think is a more or less complete list of posts like this one that I've done over the last five or six years, so as to save you the trouble of having to hunt through mountains of silliness in order to find the six or seven serious pieces.

Since I presume many of you are Bering Strait fans, you may find interesting my personal rankings of every Bering Strait song plus the songs from Cheap Escape, with a brief explanation of why each one is ranked the way it is.

I very briefly reviewed Pages here, but included the Russian lyrics to "Oy, Moroz, Moroz" and my own translation. The Russian lyrics are good.

I liked the Michael Buble / Ivan Lins reworking of "You Look Wonderful Tonight" enough to write about it at length here, then decided, "Well if they can rewrite those woeful original lyrics then so can I" and posted my own lyrics here.

I thought Andrea Bocelli's Christmas album deserved its own low-budget review and low-budget-reviewed it accordingly. Then a commenter named "Iris" who knows WAY more about Andrea Bocelli than I ever will, showed up and corrected certain aspects of my unkind take on "I Believe," and did so effectively enough for me to issue an apologetic correction.

I give a philosophical/musical/parental take on Sinatra's version of "It Was a Very Good Year" here.

Here is what happened when I took my daughter Merry (now an excellent high-school alto) to her very first opera.

Hip-hop artist MOC got a thumbs-up from me, and as far as I can tell it didn't do her a bit of good, as I don't think she ever released another album, and may not have sold any copies of her first one other than the one I bought, which is a cryin' shame as far as I'm concerned.

Luis Miguel's Christmas album Navidades is my favorite Christmas album, but somehow I only got around to a brief note on "Noche de Paz," which is my single all-time favorite version of "Silent Night, Holy Night."

If you like history or literature, then I make a passionate case for your buying Sophie Williams's astonishing memoir in this post.

I can't think of any others off the top of my head. I will say, though, that my all-time favorite post -- a reaction to a deeply moving incident in my life that demanded a rather radically different writing style in order to try to capture the intensity of the emotions and the overwhelming speed at which everything happened, and is quite unlike anything else I have ever written -- is "An Incident on Good Friday."


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