Debauche’s set consists of traditional Russian urban folk songs sung in Russian, all written by and about criminals, prostitutes, orphans and other outcasts. “Russian Orphan Song” tells of a gangster who falls for a girl who sells him out to the KGB. “Bublichki” documents a little girl who sells pencils on the frozen streets. “’Makintosh,’ is an overcoat,” explains Romantsov. “The song is a gangster guy telling about his childhood, and on the chorus he says, ‘George, hold my Makintosh’ which means, ‘I’m going to get into a fight.’ In the end, the guy gets his ass kicked and his coat gets stolen. All the songs are very sad songs,” laughs Romantsov, who nonetheless delivers the tunes with a sort of celebratory fierceness, while sweating and smiling madly. “Everybody always dies at the end of these songs after a terrible childhood. But the songs are like New Orleans,” he clarifies. “No matter what bad happens, there’s always another side. You have to carry on.”
Debauche plays roughly 30 of these Russian criminal songs and have a huge well from which to draw “new” material. As Romantsov explains the songs’ origins, you get the feeling there are so many of these songs simply because so many Russians were made prisoners. “Stalin managed to put millions in gulag concentration camps from like 1917 to 1953. Forty years of gulag imprisoned all the Russian peasants, all the Russian aristocracy, all the Russian intelligentsia—an immense amount of Russian criminals, and millions of Russian orphans that grew up to be criminals. So, more than likely, these songs weren’t written by real criminals but by Russian intelligentsia who were thrown in gulag. Either way, it’s a huge chunk of Russian sorrow and history.”
The Sardine sound - wartime Paris via New Orleans, or the other way around - is steeped in hot jazz, salty stride piano, and the kind of music Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt and Waller used to make: Straight-up, foot-stomping jazz. (Literally - the band includes a tap dancer whose feet count as two members of the rhythm section). They manage to invoke the sounds of a near-century ago and stay resolutely in step with the current age. And while their roots run deep into jazz, that most American of genres, they're intertwined with French influences via their frontwoman, who was born and raised in Paris (and writes songs in both languages).
Members of the Sardines collective have worked with a genre-hopping roster that includes Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens, Lauren Ambrose, Sondre Lerche, Vetiver, Of Montreal, Nicholas Payton, Kurt Elling, Branford Marsalis, the New York and Jerusalem Philharmonics, Slavic Soul Party and the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra.