The coronavirus crisis of 2020 (and 2021) has had such an impact on the form of the musical market that researchers, with hindsight, will probably ask whether there are any recordings released at that time and not affected by it. Robert Křesťan and Druhá tráva (Second Grass) wanted to work on a double album containing cover versions of songs by his favourites and new own works next to each other. The British producer Eddie Stevens became a part of this ambitious project but the interrupted opportunity of travelling between the Czech Republic and London also stopped work on the 2CD. The band decided not to wait for the easing and released the Díl první (Part One) separately. This is not the exact form of the initially intended first disc. “Releasing cover versions only without any apparent relationship between them and the original works seemed inadequate to us and the production style of Eddie Stevens is individual and unifying in a specific way to such an extent that we decided to release a mix of the two on the first medium and delay the second part,” explains Křesťan. Therefore, we have Díl první in front of us, but this is not any half-hearted recording or unfinished work. In spite of the Act of God, Druhá tráva has succeeded in recording one of the strongest Czech discs of 2020.
When Druhá tráva was formed almost thirty years ago, it was clear from the beginning that it would not be the former Poutníci (Pilgrims) only continuing under another name (after all, Poutníci continue to play and commemorated their fifty-year anniversary last year). The band led by Robert Křesťan and Luboš Malina went from bluegrass to a fusion of what was called new acoustic music with rock, modern country, singing folk and, for example, acoustic jazz. The style gradually changed with the incoming musicians and today the band has two excellent jazzmen at its centre, bassist Tomáš Liška and drummer Martin Novák. With its players’ virtuosity and author’s inventiveness, Druhá tráva never neglected the lyrics and Robert Křesťan is also maturing in this discipline – as the author of original stories as well as a translator, which he did, for example, with the album Dylanovky (Bob Dylan's Songs) in 2007. The author’s last collection Marcipán z Toleda (Marzipan from Toledo, 2011) has so far been one of the peaks of his creation, but it also makes sense to return to older collections such as Pohlednice (Postcards, 1997) or even the debut of Druhá tráva of 1991.
The Díl první is and at the same time is not a continuation of these almost thirty years of development. In the lines of the lyrics in the booklet we get to know Robert Křesťan as a top‑class lyricist and guess what St. John in the song entitled “Když vposlouchám se do ticha” (“When I Listen to the Sound of Silence”) has in common with the same saint in the older “Mississippi” song. We can enjoy the images of “golden olives in the sands” (in Czech: zlaté olivy v písčinách) and the use of unexpected verbs such as “a brief desire has pierced our muscles” (in Czech: “kratičká touha nám prozněla svaly”). First of all, we can clearly see Křesťan’s art of graduating a song story – the dynamics of which consist of both regular and looser verses – with a melodious refrain. We get to know the choirs that belong to Druhá tráva as well as the beautiful sound of stringed instruments (and thanks to Luboš Malina, also wind instruments sometimes). However … It's the sound that surprises as regards the new album.
Eddie Stevens has worked with bands and interpreters from the end of the genre spectrum that is absolutely different from that from which Druhá tráva emerged those thirty years ago. He has participated in recordings by the Freak Power and Moloko bands and has produced albums for electric pop singer-songwriter Róisin Murphy; in our country, especially his work with Jana Kirschner on her top albums – Moruša: Biela (Mulberry: White) and Moruša: Čierna (Mulberry: Black) – is known; which indicates a person who was moving bands from the pop scene to more alternative waters, often soaked with electronics. What could happen, consequently, when he implanted elements of electronics, distinctive organ sound and rhythmical patterns into songs by Druhá tráva? Has he moved it more to pop? In the 1990s, we might have perceived it as such, but fortunately, samples and decent electronics are also a part of folk and the craft of songwriting today. And even the connection of banjo and Dobro with synthesizers does not mean that the band has compromised the roots from which it came and the message which it wants to convey in any way.
After all, we can ask ourselves whether the sound of Druhá tráva is more enriched just by Stevens’ electronics or, for example, by the balafon played by Martin Novák in the “Něco dobrého” (“Something Good Coming”) song. Yes, the listener really must face unexpected sound aesthetic at some point – see the synthesizer accompaniment in the “Na křídlech koní” (“On The Wings of Horses”) song. However, the keyboards and electronics do not overpower the message at any point; they always rather help to depict, suggest, emphasise … and, where necessary, recede into the background. These “nonacoustic” sounds get on surprisingly well with the voice of Robert Křesťan. In the closing anthemic song called “Kam složíš hlavu” (“Where Will I Shelter my Sheep Tonight”), the imaginary lead is again taken over by instruments such as the banjo, Dobro, acoustic guitar, contrabass and mandolin again and all of this is strengthened by the choir of the members of the guest Spirituál kvintet. A worthy conclusion and a celebration of thirty years of Druhá tráva at the same time.
The Díl první is an album, which is maturing. An album, where you can find something new every time you listen to it again. Songs that seemed to be less marked at first gradually become hits – hits so strong that you cannot get them out of your head when listening again. The album, where Robert Křesťan sang his favourite songs by Sting, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash interspersed with several pieces of his own compositions, would have survived even without the production of Eddie Stevens. However, I perceive his commitment as a wise decision and a step in the right direction. And I am looking forward to the Díl druhý (Part Two), whenever it may be.
Robert Křesťan & Druhá tráva – Díl první; publisher: David Němeček – ADN 2020. 10 songs; total footage: 52:46