The first thing you hear on January Sun, the debut EP by Russian singer/electronic producer Kedr Livanskiy (real name Yana Kedrina) is a Nintendo-like synth figure fading away, an envelope filter squeezing the life out of it. A rudimentary combination of beats emerges, one of which sounds like the sped-up bossa nova preset on an inexpensive junk keyboard meant for kids ages 3 and up; the other a prototypical hi-hat figure that has “I’ve just started experimenting with house music” written all over it. As dreamy-but-crude synth pads, hand claps, and Kedrina’s vocals all join in, it’s easy to mistake the song (“Razrushitelniy Krug“) as an unremarkable piece of lo-fi house music, made by someone without a developed sense for how to arrange an instrumental backdrop.
But she quickly proves that not to be the case. Her production touch is too delicate to consign this EP to the same bin as other music current music that arrives already dated because it reeks of Instagram. Where so many artists give their work the sonic equivalent of a fake tan when they try to “warm” it up, Kedrina captures the charm of listening to dance music that’s been taped off a late-night radio broadcast. As such, her nods to the past appear to stem from romance rather than cynical fascination with kitsch.
“Winds of May,” for example, begins with a wash of queasy synth melodrama, the likes of which Boards Of Canada turned into a career 20 years ago. Like many tracks on this EP, it sounds like it’s being played on a sluggish tape deck, but here there’s an occasional pitch-up effect, as if you were listening to a tape that sat in a basement for years and skitters forward every time one of its reels makes a full turn. On “Sgoraet” (The Burning Down) and the title track, Kedrina dons her David Gahan hat and captures the flashy brooding of Black Celebration/Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Of course, Depeche Mode’s stock in trade was to turn personal angst into stadium-sized gestures that mimicked the collective hysteria of political rallies. Kedrina turns that vibe on its ear by catching a tiny bit of it in a bottle and setting it loose on a dingy, half-empty dancefloor.
A close look at the lyrics reveals further layers of interpretation and displacement. The EP title appears on the album cover in Russian, while the song titles alternate between Russian and English. Kedrina’s vocals alternate between the two languages as well, but are all listed in English. And even when she does sing in English, her delivery verges on formless much like those wordless ethereal female vocals that became Orbital’s trademark. So even when you’re reading the James Joyce verses that she quotes on “Winds of May”—”Winds of May, that dance on the sea / Dancing a ring-around in glee / From furrow to furrow, while overhead / The foam flies up to be garlanded”—her phrasing creates a sense of distance that isn’t attributable to language barrier alone.
January Sun closes with an acappella version of “Razrushitelniy Krug”/Destructive Cycle (alternately listed as “Cyclic Strength of Destruction”)that, even coming as it does after a bunch of songs with spartan arrangements heavy with primitive reverbs, feels like a curveball. With her voice echoing as if across a valley, Kedrina frees the EP from the confines of her home-recording setup, or the provincial Russian club where one can easily imagine her spinning records on an off night. On their own, her vocals take on a stately elegance, and her unbound Russian verses carry and drift. As a coda to her first musical statement, it is both striking and subtle. Whatever direction Kedrina chooses to move in with Kedr Livanskiy from here, the agility she shows on January Sun suggests that we should be watching her.
Correction: The original version of this review referred to producer/singer Yana Kedrina as “Kedr Livanskiy.” Kedr Livanskiy is the name of the project.