The Ukrainians, Istoriya (Omnium, 2004)

The Ukrainians have spent twenty years blending rock, punk, and world music in a style that makes them come across as an Eastern European equivalent of The Pogues. Despite their name, the group have always been based in England. The band was conceived when guitarist Peter Solowka played around with Ukrainian folk tunes during a radio session with BBC DJ John Peel featuring The Wedding Project, the rock band he was playing with at the time. Peel suggested the band do a full show of Ukrainian music for their next visit, for which Solowka recruited singer/violinist Len Liggins and mandolin player Roman Remeynes. The program was a hit with Peel's listeners, but less so with the rest of The Wedding Project; soon Solowka was given the opportunity to pursue his Ukrainian musical interests full time.

For most of the songs on the 2004 compilation CD Istoriya, The Ukrainians consisted of Solowka, Liggins, Remeynes, Michael L B West (mandolin and guitar), Stepan Pasicznyk (accordion), Paul Briggs (bass), and Dave Lee (drums). The band has since undergone a number of personnel changes, but Solowka and Liggins remain constants. Coming from four full-length albums and three EPs, the songs are a mix of original compositions, traditional Ukrainian songs, and some covers of punk and new wave songs translated into Ukrainian. Most of the latter come from a pair of tribute EPs, first to The Smiths and then to The Sex Pistols. "Anarkhiya (Anarchy in the UK)" is a little too hokey to be taken seriously, but "Batyar (Bigmouth Strikes Again)" is priceless.

The musical arrangements lean heavily on plucked strings, and most of the more traditionally flavored songs and tunes have a hyper polka rhythm. While this can get a bit redundant, the energy is strong throughout, and "Hopak" in particular is an excellent instrumental. The traditional melodies have a lot in common with Greek bouzouki music. While the Ukraine is not considered part of the Balkan region, much of the music on Istoriya will sound familiar and comfortable to fans of Balkan and gypsy music. Of course, the album also has heavy doses of bass and drums, and Solowka and West plug in their guitars from time to time as well.

All in all, Istoriya is a fun recording from a band whose members have feet planted in two different musical worlds. The novelty of their approach will wear off after a few listens, but The Ukrainians still have plenty of energy, a good sense of melody, and a sense of humor working in their favor.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

A recent live performance of the Ukrainians' first single, "Oi Divchino"

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