Echoes of Zappa, Oasis and a Sprinkle of Marimba

Five Czech Musical Groups You Cannot Live Without

By Michael Chrupcala

From the thrill of drum n’ bass nights at Chapeau Rouge to the alternative spirit of a Jazz Dock showcase, Prague offers a musical cornucopia for every kind of niche fan. For the uninitiated, here are five Czech groups whose masterpieces you should get to know:

Please the Trees     Formed in 2006, Please the Trees is an amalgamation of singer-songwriter Vaclav Havelka III and members of the Tabor-based band Some Other Place, Mira Syrny and Jan ‘Svaca’ Svacina.

Please the Trees plays livePhoto by Vlastamil Vojacek, courtesy of pleasethetrees.com

Please the Trees plays live.
Photo by Vlastamil Vojacek, courtesy of pleasethetrees.com

Their songs are slow and thoughtful; hinting at a knowing glance, an instinctive smile you show someone you’ve been missing, the moments we all share. These are the moments Please the Trees describes through guitars and quarter-notes. Inlakesh, their sophomore album released in 2010, is in fact named for the Mayan phrase which means “I am another ‘yourself’.” The slow, cascading strums of guitar in “Getting Ready” depict comfort, but longing, and when Havelka whispers, “It’s so quiet, the day’s a year long,” you feel you’ve intruded on a private evening.

Deeply reflective from his childhood days spent wandering the woods of Eastern Bohemia, Havelka, the primary songwriter, is often portrayed in music videos journeying and exploring. He speaks to the trees in “Ear Heart” and combs through memories tinted with age in “She Made Love to the Moon.” Ruminations like these on the band’s third effort, A Forrest Affair, scored them 2012’s Andel award (Czech equivalent to a GRAMMY) for Best Alternative Album. With acclaim both at home and abroad – the band primarily sings in English – you should be on the lookout for Please the Trees.

Strongest tracks: “Ear Heart”, “Getting Ready”, “Lost Mind

Charlie Straight    While “Indie” has more definitions than a hipster has scarves, Charlie Straight certainly fits the term. Citing influences as diverse as Bat For Lashes and CHVRCHES, the band also shows an underlying love for the Britpop of Oasis. The occasional appearance of a synth lead, mandolin, or xylophone is refreshing, yet in the vein of Oasis each song is grounded by the steady chords of an acoustic guitar or piano. This musical framework, paired with the band’s obvious flair for writing melodies, promises the listener two things: a heap of material worth exploring, and a constant smile on his or her face. Albert Cerny (vocals), Michal Supak (guitar, synth), Johnny Cienciala (bass), and Pavel Pilch (drums) formed the band in Trinec in 2006, and were discovered the following year by the founder of bandzone.cz, which is the Czech answer to Myspace. Cerny sings entirely in English, which may have helped his band nab a slot in this year’s The Great Escape festival based in Brighton, Great Britain. Despite the momentum of larger gigs and Andel awards, the band recently announced an indefinite hiatus to allow themselves time for separate projects. In the meantime, you’ve got two full albums to dig through!

Strongest tracks: “Shall We Have A Baby”, “I Sleep Alone”, “Coco

“In fact, Vaclav Havel and others drafted Charter 77, the most outright condemnation of the Communist party in the Czech Republic, partly because of the arrest of three Plastic People members.”

Plastic People of the Universe   It’s time for a throwback, and an important one at that. September, 1968: The Soviet Union has invaded the Czech Republic, halting all reforms of Communist leader Alexander Dubcek and the blossoming Prague Spring. Under an atmosphere of heightened suspicion and oppression, with tanks on the streets, bassist Milan Hlavsa turned to rock ‘n roll to express the dark, imagery-laden frustrations of many among his generation. Inspired primarily by the music of Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground – Lou Reed, R.I.P. – Hlavsa and the Plastic People of the Universe adopted the sounds of violin, clarinet, and theremin into a rock setting. Often covering the work of the aforementioned Brits, the band found themselves directly opposed to the Soviet censorship of Western culture. LPs were shared in secret by notable dissidents and angsty teens as a means of personal protest. Having given birth to an underground counter-culture, members of the band were a clear target of the government and were persecuted and arrested. In fact, Vaclav Havel and others drafted Charter 77, the most outright condemnation of the Communist party in the Czech Republic, partly because of the arrest of three Plastic People members. While founding members of the band have since passed away, the group continues to tour and record music. Contemporary recordings have a studio polish that eluded the band when it formed, hounded as it was. But the unique instrumentation and adamant stand against oppression, characteristic of the Plastic People, has never left.

Strongest Tracks: “Sweet Jane”, “Slavna Nemesis

Tomas Klus   Currently one the most auspicious Czech songwriters, Tomas Klus would appear to communicate the messages and sensitivities of his country better than most. He sings while strumming a guitar, and excels both at inspiring hope and painting dreary contexts through his word choice. If I were to compare him to American artists, he’d embody a mixture of Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic ballads and lower-registered voice, Jason Mraz’s up-tempo, quick-paced wordplay, and Conor Oberst’s dark and brooding lyrical content. At the moment he tops the charts with Krystof – another top Czech act – with their song called “Cesta,” meaning “way” or “journey.” As the winner of at least one major music-related award every year since 2008, Klus is most definitely a household name in the Slavic world. Pro tip: make use of Google Translate when you work through his tunes.

Strongest Tracks: “Marie”, “Cesta

Lenka Dusilova and Baromanticka perform at Waves Music Festival 2013 in ViennaPhoto courtesy of Lenka Dusilova Facebook

Lenka Dusilova and Baromanticka perform at Waves Music Festival 2013 in Vienna.
Photo courtesy of Lenka Dusilova Facebook

Lenka Dusilova and Baromanticka  If you do one thing after you read this article, and one thing only, then listen to this band. Winner of five Andel awards, Lenka Dusilova has written numerous solo albums and contributed to collaborative projects, and found success many times over. She even opened for the Rolling Stones’ 1995 show in Prague with her group Lucie. Currently, she performs either alone or with the group she assembled for 2011’s Baromantika which is composed of Beata Hlavenkova – a composition professor at NYU Prague –  Viliam Beres, Patrick Karpentski, and Martin Smith.  With no knowledge of the Czech language, you can still quite clearly feel the depth and power of Dusilova’s songwriting. The tunes are rooted in jazz, modern rock, even some folk. But right when you feel you’ve got this group pegged, the playful marimba of “Valerie” is swallowed by aggressive drums and shuddering synth, which dampens, dissolves, and returns to surround you in a dubstep-style drop. Just trust me on this one, and click a link below.

Strongest Tracks: “Ptaci”, “Valerie”,  “Baromanticka

Michael Chrupcala is in the NYU Steinhardt class of 2015. His hometown is Marlton, New Jersey.

 

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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