Right now, after five-plus years in the music biz, Bering Strait is still a full-fledged media event. As a musical event, though, the Russian country band remains a question mark. For that they can thank mainstream Nashville, which has cannibalized itself so fully that producers and artists there seem to be incapable of creating something that doesn’t sound just like everything else; artists and producers blame this on radio, for having such restrictive playlists, while radio blames you and me, for having such bad taste. One upshot of this is that the best way to break a fledgling act is not with new, different, and interesting music but with a new, different, and interesting story. And that, Bering Strait has. Perhaps you’ve already heard it on NPR or 60 Minutes. Here’s the short version, as detailed in The Ballad of Bering Strait, the recently released feature-length documentary film.
Now between the ages of 22 and 29, the original six classically trained members were all still teenagers when a music teacher assembled them into a bluegrass band in Obninsk, a town of nuclear scientists two hours from Moscow. In 1998, after being spotted in a Moscow Mexican restaurant by an American art dealer who knew somebody who knew Nashville executive Tim DuBois, the band moved to Music City. Glasnost followed quickly. They jettisoned their Russian music-teacher manager for a Nashville veteran, hooked up with producer Brent Maher (best known for his ‘80s work with the Judds), and signed with DuBois at Arista in 1999. Then, Bering Strait got the business. DuBois promptly lost his label in a power struggle, and the band floundered until their patron was named to run the new label Gaylord. But that company never got off the ground, and DuBois resigned after five months. Though the musicians had been recording with Maher all this time, they couldn’t legally hold other jobs due to visa restrictions, and all were living in a one-bathroom ranch house with their manager and his wife, who were going broke. The bass player got canned. Two weeks after some Straits were finally able to lease an apartment in town, it burned to the ground. Finally, DuBois and Tony Brown, another done-it-all Nashville exec, formed a new label, Universal South, under the aegis of the powerhouse Universal Music Group. The movie ends with the band signing its deal and then busing off to D.C. for its first American concert.
The documentary is curiously flat, blunting most of the story’s drama even as it shows the principals clearly near the end of their financial and emotional ropes. But that just makes it an appropriate companion to their CD, which, despite the rich musical and cultural background of the musicians, is little more than generic Nashville. With the most countrified instruments downplayed in Maher’s production, you’d never guess this band once picked and sang the kind of acoustic mountain music repopularized just three years ago by O Brother Where Art Thou?; instead, the fetching but anonymous-sounding voices of lead singer Natasha Borzilova (who also plays acoustic guitar) and backup vocalist Lydia Salnikova (keyboards) are emphasized. Natasha does hit all the notes just right but with no distinguishing style, though in fairness to her, it would take an unusually daring singer to make much out of a lyric like, ” I still wear a locket/ With a picture of you and me by the river/ Was it that long ago” (from “I’m Not Missing You”). Such songs, by the kind of Nashville pros who get most of their life experience sitting in cubicles and writing rooms trying to come up with something that sounds like whatever’s at the top of the charts that week, could use a little Russian darkness in pondering love’s ups and downs; only “I Could Be Persuaded,” thanks to a meaty melody, is catchy enough to work as a single (if the label were to release one, which it won’t—more about that later). The exceptions are the Grammy-nominated “Bearing Straight,” a twangy, band-written instrumental romp featuring lead guitarist/banjoist Ilya Toshinsky, and the traditional “Porushka-Paranya,” which evolves into a Russo-American hyper-hoedown.
The members of Bering Strait are cheerful assimilationists, their classical training and middle-class backgrounds likely easing their transition into America’s musical and social mainstream. Certainly that’s how they come across on their album—and how they’re portrayed, presumably with their approval, in the movie. Though subject to homesickness and longings for Russian food, they take readily to Sex and the City and pancake-house breakfasts. Though drummer Alexander Arzamatsev speaks only Russian in the film, the other men speak good English, and the two women are virtually accent-free. If these well-scrubbed kids have any thoughts about the USA in general beyond the fact that it’s where the music business is, they keep it to themselves. Only Natasha shows anything resembling a rebellious streak; halfway through the movie, she gives herself a punk buzz cut (then sheepishly dons a wig to hide it in public). In one of the movie’s most telling segments, an old-school DJ who insists that fans won’t accept a Russian country group is proved wrong when listener after listener concludes that Bering Strait’s music sounds like the real deal (though one caller denounces them as sounding like Yankees, who clearly are worse than foreigners). The album rode saturation media coverage into the country Top 20, though Universal declined to release a single because it didn’t want to pigeonhole the band as country.
And that seems to portend what’s happening next. Bering Strait is already hinting that the album represents the malleable kids who came to America five years ago, not the adversity-seasoned young adults they are today. They’re supposedly writing their own more pop-oriented material for the second album, due early next year and probably under a new producer; they just switched booking agencies in an attempt to break free of the mainstream country circuit. Given the plainness of their music thus far, it’s a good move, assuming they can deliver; a fusion of tradition-based Russian and American sounds along the lines of “Porushka-Paranya” would definitely be an improvement. Then they’ll just have to keep their fingers crossed that after failing to live up to their press the first time around, there’ll still be an audience paying attention.