Lithuanian four-piece Solo Ansamblis call their music “sad dance”, as good a descriptor as any for their peculiar blend of post-punk and electronics. While there’s no doubt that new album Olos trades in melancholy, it’s far from a downer. Via deep groovy rhythms, unintuitively catchy vocal melodies and surprisingly minimal arrangements (especially given their noted excess when it come to visual flair) the band work a funky and off-kilter angle that is as intriguing as it is, well, odd.
For a band that’s only been in existence for a few years, Solo Ansamblis make a lot of good and intriguingly economical choices when it comes to songcraft. Without wanting to downplay the general weirdness of how they present themselves, the band’s use of guitar and bass against synths and drum machines is generally presented without excessive production filigree. Instead the band make the most of arrangement choices to get their songs across. See how the bubbling synth-bass at the open of “Piligrimai II” provides a solid foundation for bass and guitar to serve as rhythmic counterpoint, sliding in and out of sync with each other as the track requires. It’s the sort of smart but not flashy choice the band show a penchant for throughout Olos: check out the way they use a peaked wormy synth noise and syncopated bassline to cut through the downbeat mood of “Neturėjom Dainos”, and the slightly manic oompah beat used on the stormy “Netildai”.
Even without a working understanding of Lithuanian, it’s in the vocals that so much of Solo Ansamblis’ personality comes across. Featuring paired male voices that switch between wild yelps, droll monotone and occasionally plain and heartfelt delivery, there isn’t a song on Olos that doesn’t get something from how it’s sung. It might take a few passes on album standout “Baloje” to really catch the nuances in the way the voices act as both a grounding element and a contrast to the song’s vaguely sinister tempo, switching between keeping time with the 4/4 kick or drawing themselves across the elastic tempo. A perusal of a translation of the lyrics offers some idea of the band’s social poetics and politics. Whatever context is lost in translating a line like “To rule/to rule/to lick the diamonds” you can’t deny the image it conjures.
All of which is to say that Solo Ansamblis walk the fine line between amusing strangeness and weirdness for its own sake expertly across Olos. Their eccentricity isn’t a by-product of cultural or language barriers so much as it is a function of substance and presentation. It’s certainly one of 2020’s most charming records to date, and well worth it for fans of left of center post-punk and art rock.