Every time listening to this album, I am reminded of a January afternoon in Old Rīga, sitting across a cafe table from Ainars Mielavs. He seemed uncomfortable in the role of interview subject, even though the interview was not about him but about his recording company. I left frustrated because Mielavs had not opened up more, but I was just as frustrated with myself, wishing I had posed my questions differently. Yet I also felt empathy. And so it goes with this album: frustration with Mielavs, frustration with myself, but with a sense that I know what he’s singing about.
Es nāku uz Taviem smiekliem (I Come in Response to Your Laughter) is Mielavs’ debut solo effort. This is Mielavs without the folk-rock influence of Jauns Mēness and without the masterful compositional hand of Imants Kalniņš, with whom he has released three albums. Es nāku is a showcase for Mielavs’ lyrical talent—it is a remarkable one—and for his musical skills, although he does get a hand from guitarist Gints Sola, who carries the brunt of the instrumental work on most of the tracks.
Almost all of these are love songs. They are presented in a variety of musical styles, from blues to jazz to pop. Several are painful yet optimistic love songs that dig into the relationship between two people. For example, the first track, "Labradors" (Labrador), tells of a volatile, crumbling relationship and a man’s hopeful search for his beloved’s conscience: "The walls collapsed in hatred / With dampened emotions / And all the ordinary days / Became the best of days."
These also are simple songs, with direct, strong imagery in the lyrics and—in most cases—a minimal musical underlayment.
It is this simplicity that in part leads to frustration. Mielavs in his lyrics relies often on lists of similes, of opposing thoughts, or just things. He’s done this in the past with Jauns Mēness songs, and does it here on at least five of the 12 tracks. For example, there’s "Dvēselu noliktava" (Warehouse of Souls), which has lines such as "Fame is a net which entangles / Fame is 100 proof rum / Fame is thin air on which to climb / Fame is an overthrow of values." And in "Visvairāk un vismazāk" (The Most and the Least), we have verses such as "There are books that I read the most / There are weaknesses I reveal the most / There are hopes I believe in the most / There are people I feel the most." It’s a simple and often effective songwriting technique, but when the technique begins to overpower the lyrics, perhaps it’s time to explore other forms. How about a ballad, Ainar?
Mielavs also often repeats verses, as if he were telling the audience, "Listen carefully to what I just said." In songs such as "Es izvēlos būt" (I Choose to Be), the technique at times left me thinking that additional lyrics could have been just as helpful, but at other times found me listening intently.
Musically this album has Mielavs’ voice supported on most tracks by unembellished, controlled guitar work, with an occasional banjo or mandolin. But again, too much simplicity can be frustrating. If Mielavs isn’t going to explode, at least the guitar could! Fortunately, the album is fairly well-paced. The first two melancholy tracks, "Labradors" and "Es nāku uz Taviem smiekliem" are followed by a slightly uptempo "Par un pret" (For and Against). And all the tracks seem to build toward the big finish that is the final song.
The final track, "On My Way to the Big Light," is the only song in English. Written by Mike Scott, the Scottish-born singer known for his work with The Waterboys, it is performed by Scott and Mielavs. It’s an uplifting tune, somewhat out of synch with the rest of the tracks, but nonetheless appropriate with its chorus of "All love to the Love / All flame to fire / All wings to the wind / All that lives, higher!"
The album as a whole is frustrating, but I find that it keeps digging into me—and that’s frustrating, too. My favorite tracks have become "Labradors," "Es nāku uz Taviem smiekliem," "Visvairāk un vismazāk," and "Tavu acu augstumā" (On the Level of Your Eyes), which is a gentle song, it seems, about a short woman.
This is a collection of songs that demands a careful ear, that requires listening again and again to understand fully. More so than other recent Latvian recordings, this album asks the listener to think about their own experiences in life. And the more I listen, the more I understand.
A final note: UPE has been doing a nice job with liner notes on all its recent releases, and this album is no exception. Lyrics are included in Latvian and English, with some of the translation done by Mielavs’ friend and Latvia’s former ambassador to the United States, Ojārs Kalniņš.
Es nāku uz Taviem smiekliem
UPE Recording Co., 2000
UPE CD 015
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