Despite rumors of exploding music scenes (there’s reportedly a pretty wild Russian psychedelic underground, exemplified by the exceedingly strange but enjoyable Roricat), worthy 21st-century music has been emerging only in a trickle from the world no longer behind the Iron Curtain. Estonia’s endearing Pia Fraus raises hopes that situation will remedied soon. Based in Talinn, the Baltic republic’s picturesque seaside capital, the youthful band creates charming shoegazing bubblegum similar to the more upbeat moments of Lush, Chapterhouse and Velocity Girl. It’s not particularly original, but it’s adorable as all get out.
Wonder What It’s Like, the best cuts of which are collected on the Plastilina EP, sets the tone with sprightly, nearly frantic but always melodic pop tunes highlighted by swirling guitars, Eve Komp and Rain Fuks’ vocals and Kärt Ojavee’s synthesizers, which sound more like a cheap Farfisa copy than modern synths. If Lush’s “Sweetness and Light” were performed with the enthusiasm of the early Undertones it would sound a lot like this. In Solarium is equally wonderful — the band has matured its sound somewhat with no loss of energy, sounding like early Blondie produced by Kevin Shields. Delightful stuff. (Be warned that the CD cover has the track listing wrong.)
Mooie Island appears to be the work of a band in transition. The giddiness of the earlier releases is gone, replaced by more ambitious song structures that at times border on prog. Instrumentals or quasi-instrumentals dominate, but the title track is firmly within the established Pia Fraus sound. Whether a new direction for the band or simply an experimental digression foir the young Estonians, Mooie Island is a provocative development. (The disc also contains a video for the title cut.)
Pia Fraus participated in No Hidden Catch, an unexpectedly great all-Estonian tribute to Depeche Mode, contributing an uptempo version of “Condemnation” that transforms the dirge into a pop confection. Sailing on a Grapefruit Lake is a compilation.
Nature Heart Software poses a bit problem in that it’s both an excellent album and a disappointment. The youthful enthusiasm of Pia Fraus’ earlier releases inevitably had to give way to maturity, but it was that very enthusiasm that set the Estonians apart from other outfits mining the same territory. They’re still a superior shoegaze band — “Pretend to Be Here,” “Chromatic Nights” and “Day, Week or Season” are as good as fans of the genre could hope for — but they aren’t as distinctive as they used to be. The final two songs on the album mix up the formula enough to show that Pia Fraus still has a few surprises up its collective sleeve: “No Borders” gallops along with all sorts of distorted Atari noises blaring in the foreground, then pauses for an odd lounge break before resuming its headlong momentum, while the calm “Japanese Heart Software” suddenly dissolves into what sounds like a drunken horn section. Developments like these give hope that the adult Pia Fraus will be as special as the teenaged one.