Czar Nicholas Is Dead
Christian Kiefer & Sharron Kraus
The Black Dove
Record Reviews by Adam McKibbin
Critics and fans often seem to be curiously intrigued/amused by the musician who doubles as an academic, whether by doing graduate studies in fields unrelated to music (i.e. Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater) or by writing songs that read like prose and make listeners scramble for their online dictionaries (i.e. Colin Meloy of The Decemberists). Christian Kiefer is one of the former, and his press sheet for Czar Nicholas Is Dead name-checks Kafka and sketches out an ambitious impetus behind the album that involves plenty of academic research into Russian culture and history.
The result, Czar Nicholas Is Dead, also demands immersion—or at least is best appreciated with headphones and/or a little quiet time. Whether the stories of the album would emerge independently through the instrumentals is up for debate; there are, of course, echoes of Russian folk music and so forth, but one gets the sense that Kiefer has a fully-formed narrative fleshed out in his head, such is the level of detail and evocation. It’s an album crafted with an intense and meticulous focus, best (or at least most pleasingly) embodied on the achingly wistful “Koptyaki Road, Night,” with its patiently pretty guitars layered atop a steady chorus of chirping. Like the other peaks of Czar Nicholas Is Dead, “Koptyaki Road, Night” is almost impossible to hear without translating it into mental cinema.
The field noises and the powerful sense of instrumental storytelling continue, but the tone gets bleaker throughout the album, as perhaps forecast by titles like “On Suffering Grief” and “The Firing Squad.” Not everything is riveting; droney wanderings like “The Politburo Dreams Of The Urals” are nice mood pieces, but not something you’d frequently cue up, regardless of situation. Kiefer throws a sharp and effective curveball with his closing interpretation of “Troika,” which comes out sounding somewhat like a Low dirge.
Fans looking for a more straightforward entry point should head for The Black Dove, Kiefer’s collaboration with English folk singer Sharron Kraus (released earlier this year). Again, it’s high-concept, but the concept doesn’t get in the way of simply enjoying the work. This time, it’s a series of love letters between a person and a ghost…OK, maybe that didn’t read so well, but it’s a construct that well serves the collaborative partners, as Kraus has an earthy and soulful voice, in the ballpark of Hem’s Sally Ellyson, while Kiefer is a more unnerving presence. His arrangements juxtapose the darkness against Kraus’s vocal light. Spoiler alert: the light doesn’t always overcome.
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