Luminous sadness

Alina Simone sings Yanka Dyagileva
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  August 5, 2008

As indie rock extends its colonial gaze eastward, ravishing (in several senses) the musics of the Balkans, Russia, and (increasingly) Southeast Asia and Indonesia for their odd meters, gudoks, and slendro scales, you can’t help feeling that, despite all the gusto and the well-intentioned curiosity, something essential’s getting squandered in the fusion. If much of the fervor over Eastern adventures mounted by bands from Brooklyn seems charitable, meet Alina Simone — who, despite being Ukraine-born and now residing in Brooklyn, considers herself “a Boston person,” having grown up in Medford. On her newest album, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware (54°40’ or Fight!), she may have discovered the easiest (and most difficult) strategy for preserving the power of music from elsewhere: language.

Those who see the opacity of a foreign language as prohibitive to their enjoyment have probably overdosed on shittily produced Starbucks-ready “world music.” The language barrier is no hazard when it comes to Simone, whose voice (despite an American accent that I can’t detect but that she swears is there when she sings Russian) quivers and hovers around its unfamiliar phonetic terrain while deftly conveying the dark, frustrated emotions of the songs — each one a cover of Siberian-born punk-folk singer Yanka Dyagileva. Along the way, searing guitars creep, trumpets swoon, moody backdrops unfurl, and scratchy hard-struck acoustics light up each track with arresting immediacy. It’s no act of tourism.

While living in Hoboken, Simone hopped the F-train to Brighton Beach — her first entry into a predominantly Russian community since departing Ukraine at the age of one. “I was in a state of shock,” she says, at seeing signs in Cyrillic and hearing couples conversing in Russian and, especially, the music of the street performers. They weren’t playing the “thinly veiled political songs” Simone had endured from her parents’ hi-fi. (Her father, a Russian ex-pat, fled to the US after his rejection of a KGB recruitment overture — and “flagrantly checking out of books from the library” — landed him on its blacklist.) It was straight-up indie rock, but in Russian, odd in its competing familiarities. The performers invited Simone to Manhattan’s Elbow Room, where a steady stream of Russian rock was carving out a niche. There, she was given a cassette with some Yanka songs.

The story of Yanka is a book in itself. After dropping out of engineering school in Novosibirsk in 1985 and developing an increasing interest in the risky Siberian punk scene, she met Civil Defense singer Igor Letov. The tumultuous relationship that developed with Letov (and Letov’s own tumultuous relationship with Russian authorities) led them to flee Siberia and travel back and forth across Russia through the late ’80s, surviving on next to nothing in the midst of perestroika, playing shows, and tracking broodingly beautiful songs to cassette — tapes that eventually proliferated as samizdat and earned Dyagileva a cult following that, years after her mysterious drowning death in 1991, continues to grow. A following that’s highly protective.

“The Russians I knew were very discouraging about me singing in Russian,” says Simone. “They wanted me to translate it. But really, I never considered doing it in English. I think it sounds beautiful. There are more sounds, more tones. Would you work with a limited palette because it’s more comfortable?” She laughs. “Part of my goal is to just fucking force Americans to listen to Russian rock.”

ALINA SIMONE + EUGENE MIRMAN + TONEARM | Middle East upstairs, 472 Mass Ave, Cambridge | August 10 @ 9 pm | $10 | 617.864.EAST

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