Struggling for four years with the kind of label woes that have left Next Big Things from Tsar to Palo Alto floating in industry ether, Bering Strait, a band of bluegrass-rocking Russian kids, now star in their own Behind the Music before they’ve made any music to really get behind. The Ballad of Bering Strait echoes the trajectory of the post-Communist-bloc region itself, unmoored and at the mercy of pitiless capitalist forces. The tension between Old World fatalism and millennial chaos comes through in interviews with the musicians, their families, and various Nashville executives who have saddled the band with the burden of Svengali fantasies. The frustration of waiting resonates most for the group’s women: guitarist and lead vocalist Natasha (buzzing her long tresses, she mortifies the band’s good-ol’-boy manager, whose stake in her pop-star sex appeal rages beneath Christian decorum), and keyboardist Lydia, whose skeptical dad asserts that the greatest wish for a woman is for a man to love her. There is a pendulous swing between the kids’ rather joyless faith in virtuosity and a heady rebellion that augments over time for Lydia and Natasha. It’s too bad that Bering Strait has yet to produce a song that transcends novelty—when they explode into a Russian rollick, you wish they’d chuck the Nashville pretense entirely.
Of course, musical anemia gets much paler than this. Disney’s sequel to their 1967 Kipling rave-up The Jungle Book is a storyless reprise that makes the Bering Strait kids’ work-visa-less puttering look like That Thing You Do. Whatever primitivism issues persist, the original (overseen by Walt himself) featured some of the greatest tunes in cartoonland. Famously voiced by Phil Harris (Baloo the Bear), Louis Prima (King Louie of the Apes), and Sebastian Cabot (Bagheera the panther), the animals were charming precisely because they had better things to do than fuss with a lost boy. This time, Mowgli (a peppy Haley Joel Osment) is beckoned back from the Man-village because his jungle pals are bored. (Hint: When trying to amuse us, it’s best not to imply that characters can’t even amuse themselves.) The new tunes sound like Buster Poindexter mainlining Sweet’n Low, and at a critically song-starved moment, John Goodman’s Baloo admits, “King Louie? He split!” Before the third defibrillation of “Bare Necessities,” you and your kids might too.