Olga Bell is in the Dirty Projectors and makes dance music with Tom Vek. She wears that Rihanna T-shirt that parodies the Nirvana logo, and YouTubes Weezer covers. But even from its jarring opening chords, it’s clear that Bell’s new chamber-work-cum-album, Krai, doesn’t sound like pop music, and perhaps like any music you’ve heard before. Its most immediately striking facet is its language; though Bell spent her formative years in Alaska and New York, she was born in Moscow, and the album is sung entirely in Russian. Three of the “movements” feature Russian folk texts, and the others poems co-written in a similar style by Bell and her mother. Each section of the piece in some way explores the history and culture of one of nine krais, or territories, scattered across Russia. The sound and content of Bell’s language is complemented by her songwriting, which favors unfamiliar, chromatic harmonies evocative of Russian traditional music over Western pop chord progressions.
Bell’s heavily multi-tracked vocals are throaty and occasionally strident, recalling the Bulgarian State Television Vocal Choir and Trio Bulgarka. There is also, occasionally, faux-Tuvan throat singing created with the help of digital pitch-shifting (the sinister “Altai Krai”). The recognizable stylistic elements of Krai arise mostly in Bell’s inventive arrangements, though they are not assembled in any kind of familiar fashion. Among other things, there are top-heavy, mixed-meter drum grooves, stuttering mutant-disco bass lines, pealing Jonny Greenwood-like guitar leads, jazz fusion-esque electric piano trimmings and even a hyperactive hi-hat pattern straight out of Southern hip-hop production (see “Stavropol Krai”). Often, this many layers will be at play during just a moment of Krai.
Olga Bell belongs to a cohort of indie musicians that work as composers, but her music refreshingly avoids the current clichés of music lumped into that category. If Krai directly interacts with any “art music” tradition at all, it is the plaintive, dissonant writing of 20th-century Soviet masters like Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke. Bell’s idea of musical form resembles a classical composer’s more than a singer-songwriter’s; she eschews traditional verse-chorus based forms in favor of more integrated structures, where a melodic “theme” is developed and recast in different molds over the course of a movement. It’s primarily this element of Bell’s music that makes Krai, a work which draws from so many disparate musical idioms, a spectacularly well-unified and exceptional piece, instead of simply a pastiche of ear-catching ideas.