So much schlager, so little time

Šlāger music is quite the phenomenon in Latvia. I’m always amazed how in some of the music stores there are racks and racks of compact discs and tapes that represent this music. And every time I go there, it seems that there is more and more of it—new šlāgeraptaujas (šlāger compilations) seem to come out every month. Quite impressive for a style of music that gets sneered at by snobbier music fans, and gets derided in a variety of ways, like “It all sounds the same,” “That’s music only my grandmother would listen to,” etc.

Personally, I don’t mind the stuff. It is simple, but catchy, and most of the songs are the type you can start singing along before the song is even done.

But of course, the issue is that there is so much šlāger, so little time. So whom to listen to? There are so many groups (and I will admit that many of them do sound the same in the end) that it is hard to figure out which recordings in particular to purchase, and which of the many, many šlāger groups are worth listening to.

A group whose songs I often heard over the years is Zeļļi (roughly translated to “chaps” or “fellows”). The band is made up of Raitis Treijs (voice), Jānis Vējiņš (keyboards), Ivars Birkāns (on saxaphone, one of the unique sounds in Zeļļi), and Pēteris Vējiņš (guitar and voice). Though similar to many other šlāger groups, they had some truly memorable songs. Judging from the 1995 release Mikrofona 20 labākās dziesmas, Zeļļi had a number of hits. These include “Krustceles,” a hit in 1993. Another hit was “Vel tu nāc,” a song from 1994. My favorite song by them is “Vedej, pasteidzies”, which I had originally heard on the 1991 album Ratiņa aptauja, also put out by MICREC.

So with Dziesmas Tev un man, I was expecting an album full of Zeļļi classics.

Much to my surprise, I was disappointed by what I heard.

As with the Labvēlīgais tips and Bumerangs best-of collections, these recordings are new recordings of old songs. I can understand the reasoning for re-recording old versions of songs, maybe to record them better (because technology has improved over the years) or maybe because the members of the band have become better musicians. The Tips and Bumerangs collections are still fully in the spirit of the originals, and the changes aren’t too startling for someone who has heard the old versions of the songs. However, in Zeļļi’s case, the new songs are sometimes markedly different than what I remembered.

An example of that is “Vedej, pasteidzies,” a song about a guy who is rushing to get home to his beloved, but arrives just in time to see her get married to someone else. The version on the Ratiņa record was a simple yet catchy folk song. The version on the new CD has been given a dance beat, with an over-loud drum track. I think this totally ruined the mood of the song. Somehow I don’t see this getting played in a dance club anyway!

The new version of “Krustceles” is not much different than the version I had heard on the 20 labākās dziesmas album. The original was a slower, more relaxed song about relationships (including the great line “Ne jau visi atkusi nes pavasari, ne jau katra aizraušanās mīlu līdzi nes”—Not every thaw brings spring, not every diversion brings love). The major, upsetting difference is that the original had a great saxaphone solo to close out the song, but this re-recording completely omits that. Just when I thought the saxaphone would start, the song ends! I was most saddened by its absence.

But there are plenty of worthwhile moments on the album, even though it seems that every song was designed to be “danceable.” “Rudzupukes,” “Lilijas” and “Skaudība” are all examples of what šlāger is all about: songs that upon first listen make you think you’ve known them your entire life. Also, the new version of “Vel tu nāc” is one of the few songs on here that is better than the original.

There’s a Latvian version of the song “Blowing in the Wind” called “Atbildi zina tikai vējš.” It’s the same as the English version. However, they don’t even credit Bob Dylan as the writer of the song (for shame!).

Unfortunately, the second half of the album falls into the same šlāger music trap: It all begins to sound the same. The second half mostly has slow ballads that seem to fade into each other without any way to distinguish between all of them. Even after repeated listenings, I can’t immediately distinguish some of the songs.

I really, really did want to like this record, as I think Zeļļi are a very talented band with a number of great songs, but this album is not the best representation for them. I’d suggest seeking out the 20 Labākās dziesmas album (which, to my knowledge, is long out of print) or some early šlāgeraptaujas with the original versions of these songs.

And again, no lyrics! I am completely aware that sometimes it is simply an issue of cost that the lyrics are not attached. But if this is your first CD release, and you want your fans to really appreciate your words and your songs, please attach the lyrics for the songs.

Ardent šlāger fans will probably love this record, as it is completely predictable and contains no shocks or surprises, which is to be expected from šlāger music and not entirely a bad thing at all. However, anyone who expects to be even slightly challenged by the music they listen to will be disappointed. Though Zeļļi are a cut above the “average” šlāger band, this album does not show that as well as it could have.


Dziesmas Tev un man


Gailītis-G,  1999

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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