Review by Le Blackstone
Back in 2015, the Czech trio known as Ponk released their debut CD called Postfolklor. "Folklore is dead," Ponk proclaimed, all the while mining traditional folksongs about death. Irony lay thick, and the band took no prisoners with its synergy of cimbalom (Eduard Tomaštic), violin (Michal Krýstynek), and double bass (Jakub Nožicka). The band from Brno return with a new set of songs and tunes, Diedina, and the group has not lost its boundary-busting approach to attacking one's preconceptions about sound. (Jakub Nožicka plays bass on Diedina, but he has since left the group and Pavel Rajmic has now joined the band.)
On Diedina, Ponk have moved towards more self-penned material. Where death was exhaustively explored on Postfolklor, Diedina tackles village life in Moravia. The result is songs that hearken to traditional themes and break with them in crazy-quilt fashion: this time out, Ponk remind me of a post-punk XTC let loose in the Czech countryside. There are nods to jazz, funk, blues, rap, the Beatles, doo-wop, punk, and minimalism, making Diedina another exercise in joyous iconoclasm.
"Devcica Z Dediny"
It helps that the songs incorporate the band's signature wryness. Lyrically, the band is inspired by folk music's ability to render everyday truths as a blank slate for the listener to interpret. The album begins with a short "Intro" (written by Krýstynek), a mere slice that echoes his longer "Devcica Z Dediny."
I know this village lass
Who is not work-shy
I'm not the only one
Who'd like to have her
But she refuses to get married
The protagonist of the song observes the woman from afar, and notes that A girl like her must not
And do all the work alone.
What a stupid idea.
I like her and she should know.
But whether the singer acts on his desire is unclear – Ponk provide a lurching kind of rhythm not unlike some kind of low-down honky-tonk, built on a rolling cimbalom figure by Tomaštic. Krýstynek fairly howls the vocals with something either like lust, or anger, and the song opens wide for an expansive violin solo that twists and turns on itself.
Slépka," also by Krýstynek, observes that There is a white chicken
In our yard
And you used to be mine
Now you're bedding
With some other guy.
The stop-start rhythm again brings to mind XTC, and the melody breaks down to barely plucked strings on the cimbalom, deep bass notes, and absolute violin skronk, before being offset by a tenderly sung chorus that again dissolves into dissonance. One is left with the impression that living in the countryside is not entirely tranquil: appearances are deceiving, and longing can drive you mad.
"Rurál" sounds a bit like a Bohemian number by Prince, a scratchy funk vamp defining the song about a man enjoying his hard work around the garden and woodshed. Everything drops out to make way for the cimbalom, though, and Ponk then grace this minimalistic turn by angelically harmonizing over the top; perhaps this is his satisfied mood (in the sky, with diamonds).
"Moja Žena" finds the trio reinterpreting a traditional tune My wife is sad because I drink
She'll be even sadder when I die.
Then she'll come to my dead body
And try to make it drink/Well, too late,
I'm not getting up anymore.
But the tune is dreadfully happy, leaving Krýstynek vocalizing like Sting busting a gut on "Synchronicity II."
Each Ponk tune unfolds with something to recommend it: "Farár," about a village priest, bounces along on Nožicka's bass line, and the tune is augmented by the Khaabee String Quartet; "Babické Zvony" mourns the loss of a young girl killed by soldiers, the cimbalom sounding like dripping tears, but then hitting an off-note of dissonance; and "Jagzamlada," about an unfaithful young wife, comes off like a cross between scat singing and a Weather Report joint, the insistent cimbalom sounding like a pounded piano chord. "Chábí" throws rapping into the mix over a spare beat, plucked strings and voices competing and ricocheting in the mix.
But it is on the title track, "Diedina," that we get a full sense of Ponk's worldview, of being in the village and yet out of it. The mood of the song changes, varying from angular attack, to a blissful neoclassicism. The protagonist of the tune experiences the village like a dream, a haven away from city life; it is a place of autonomy, where one can
…eat all the lovely local junk
And drink plum brandy
And do whatever floats my boat.
Indeed, a quote on the inside of the CD states "My village is not of this world." substituting 'village' for 'kingdom' in Jesus' biblical words. But, for the singer, the reverie does not last: Once my time off is over
I sadly wave goodbye
And swap my folk costume
For the corporate one.
Ponk are suspended between worlds, but that is what gives their music such tension and beauty.
I have to give the design of Diedina high marks, too – the CD packaging is filled with stitched images of village life (chickens, plants, villagers, buildings, vehicles, sausages and wine). Upon opening the cardboard case, the folk imagery unfolds in a 3-D model of a village: a lovely surprise. Interestingly, though, the visual folk art, which feels feminine, provides an essential counterpoint to the song subjects, which are predominantly from the perspective of spurned, angry, or indifferent men. Overall, Ponk's latest is another confident, unique statement from a band that likely has more surprises in store for adventuresome listeners. - Lee Blackstone