Maria Minerva | Cabaret Cixous
Most likely to: arouse and disturb in equal measure.
I’ve never been to the Baltic Sea, but it’s always been fascinating to me. With a shoreline dotted with fairytale castles, it’s home to bleak winters of endless dark and bright summers of near-perpetual light – the launching pad for berserker Vikings and the source of sparkling pop music, existential Bergman films and sleazy Swedish pornography. The Baltic region is rife with contradictions, simultaneously inviting and forbidding.
Pop culture exports from the Baltic have generally been dominated by the Swedes, the Danes and the Germans, but lately little Estonia has begun making some noise. Being absorbed into the Soviet Union for four decades didn’t do the Estonians any cultural favors, but some damned worthwhile music has been leaking out of their picturesque capital city Tallinn over the last few years. Until now, it’s been the shoegazing popsters in Pia Fraus getting most of the attention, but in 2011 it was 22-year-old Maria Minerva who jumped straight outta Tallinn and into the international spotlight.
The seemingly tireless Minerva dropped four releases in twelve months – two EPs and two full-length albums. Cabaret Cixous is the second of Minerva’s long-players and probably the best representation so far of her mix of chillwave, shoegazing and synth-pop. It’s every bit as lovely as it is chilling.
Minerva’s music embodies most people’s impressions of her corner of the planet perhaps better than anyone other than The Knife. It’s distinctly otherworldly, conjuring up the suspicion that it’s emanating from just over the horizon in a land of hazy half-light, where Cold War-era spies still skulk around in hot water flats listening in on ridiculously attractive blonde people doing kinky things to each other to pass the time through endless bleak winters. Everything Minerva does feels like it’s coming from somewhere else, and it’s a place as disturbing as it is sexy – you have a good chance of getting laid in Minerva’s world, but the elements are waiting just outside the thin walls to kill your ass dead as soon as they get the chance.
Take a song like “Pirate’s Tale”: the top level is occupied by Minerva’s seductive cooing; below that is a layer that sounds like the hook from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” echoing around a deserted town square on a frozen midnight; percolating along beneath that layer are all kinds of buzzing and purring synths rubbing all over each other; at the bottom of it all is a percussion track that sounds like a Viking blacksmith’s shop. It’s undoubtedly alluring, but creepy to an equal degree.
Closing track and lead single “Ruff Trade” is perhaps the purest statement of Minerva’s aesthetic. It’s a sing-song melody spinning a tale of rough sex and sundry other kinky goings-on over a martial beat and gussied up with all kinds of swirling keyboards and drones. It’s like pervy euro-porn playing on a cable channel in a crappy hotel room during an Arctic blizzard. It sort of creeps the hell out of you, but you know you’re going to watch it anyway.
Cabaret Cixous is far from a perfect album – there’s enough flabby filler in the middle of the proceedings to make the listener wish that Minerva had combined the best tracks of all her 2011 releases into one killer album instead of spreading them a little thinly over four lesser records. But even though it’s slightly flawed, it’s a fascinating document of a new voice. If Estonia has more artists of the caliber of Maria Minerva lurking around, hopefully they’ll be making their way into the international consciousness soon. Now it’s time for Latvia and Lithuania to get it in gear and add even more dimensions to Baltic pop culture.
Watch the video for Minerva’s “Ruff Trade” below: