One has to admire the palm tree. Even in the most oppressively hot and dry desert weather, it is able to stay green. In Latvian, this concept is expressed as “palmas zaļo vienmēr” (palms are always green), a phrase that is an expression of hope in the face of adversity. This phrase was most likely coined by playwright Venta Vīgante, who wrote a play with the same title. Late last yar, veteran Latvian group bet bet borrowed the title for its latest compact disc.
bet bet, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2006, formed in 1991. Violinist and singer Zigfrīds Muktupāvels came over from the defunct Zodiaks. Well-known Latvian lyricist, drummer, music industry executive and occasional vocalist Guntars Račs came from a short stint in Jauns mēness. Rounding out the group at its founding were Uģis Tirzītis on guitar and Aivis Kalvāns on bass, both also formerly of Jauns mēness. Former Zodiaks guitarist Aivars Gudrais also joined the band briefly in the early days. Bassist Kalvāns departed the group in 2006 and was replaced by Andris Alviķis. The group’s lineup as of the recording of Palmas zaļo vienmēr was Muktupāvels, Račs, Tirzītis and Alviķis.
Six years passed since the release of the band’s previous album, 2000’s criminally underrated Ceļš, kuru iet. Though the group was sporadically working on songs, and a few singles did appear over that time, Palmas zaļo vienmēr finally appeared in October 2006. And it was worth the wait—bet bet has once again released a great collection of songs in the group’s own unique style.
One might think that with the musical pedigree that these guys have, they would create epic and complex works, but their work is of a quite different style. From their earliest work—popular songs like “Man vienalga viss” and “Diena”—their songs were simple, catchy and with a touch of humor that is often lacking in Latvian music. One might compare them to the American group the Traveling Wilburys, also made up of respected musicians and performers who recorded music that was deceptively simple with a touch of humor.
One of the songs on Palmas zaļo vienmēr is the tongue-in-cheek “Nekādu problēmu” (No Problems), with music and words by Račs. The song first appeared on the 100% svaigs Nr. 7 collection, released in 2004. A slow and leisurely song about not having any problems and “es nēesmu nevienam sunim parādā” (I am in debt to no dog), it became very popular. Interestingly, the version on Palmas zaļo vienmēr has been completely redone from a musical perspective. It now is much more up-tempo and Muktupāvels adopts a much rougher sounding voice when singing. To be honest, I prefer the original, slower version.
Another plant that grows in extreme conditions is the cactus, and this plant also gets an ode of its own: “Kaktuss,” with music by Tirzītis and words by Račs. No matter what is going on, the cactus behind the window is colorfully blooming.
It is not always Muktupāvels who handles the lead vocals. Račs handles vocal duties on “Uz jauno krastu” and guitarist Tirzītis sings on one of my favorite tracks, “Mēmais kino.” And not all the songs are cheerful. The somber “Kas mani pie tevis tur” asks the questionm “Kas mani pie tevis tur un neļauj prom iet” (What binds me to you and prevents me from leaving?).
A nod to their influences and a fitting conclusion to the album comes in the Latvian version of the Hank Williams song “Jambalaya.” In Latvian it is known as “Džambulaja” (with Latvian text by Alfrēds Krūklis).
The packaging includes all lyrics, and the cover features an odd picture of the band dressed as mechanics in a sea of tires—perhaps an ode to the fact that these “simpler” songs are more intended for the “common man” rather than some erudite musical scholar. Or perhaps it is just meant to be an amusing picture.
Six years is a long time to wait for any album, but it was worth the wait this time, as bet bet has delivered yet another infectiously listenable recording, full of songs that quickly grow on the listener. The band’s sense of humor and also a sense of joie de vivre are evident. The album confirms bet bet as one of the best and most consistent Latvian acts performing today.
Palmas zaļo vienmēr
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