Release Date: Mar 1, 2011
Record label: Epitaph
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Punk/New Wave, International, European Folk, Gypsy, South/Eastern European Traditions
Having first tested the waters of film scoring with the Oscar-winning picture Little Miss Sunshine and outright embracing the role with last year’s I Love You Phillip Morris, it comes as little surprise that multi-instrumentalist composer Nick Urata implements much of the same cinematic touches to his primary musical outlet DeVotchKa. With the Denver-based quartet’s latest album, 100 Lovers, DeVotchKa continues its penchant for the gypsy sound of old world Eastern Europe and Mexican mariachi, but does so in such a way that now feels less like a group of descendent immigrants trying to impress their respective homelands and more like a band trying to create a sense of cultural travelogue. Regularly swelling with gorgeous string arrangements and Urata’s slurring, operatic bellows, 100 Lovers feels like a reverse-engineered soundtrack to a beautiful foreign film in dire need of epic landscapes and intimate moments of romance.
Something old, something new… DeVotchKa’s fifth studio LP, 100 Lovers, begins with a gorgeously moody and cinematic wash of synths, strings and piano seeping forth as if water through a crack in a dam. From beneath this swirl of sound, a steady-marching drumbeat subtly emerges, pressure building slowly at first but then more and more rapidly until, finally, the wall holding back the floodwaters bursts in a majestic symphonic crescendo, singer Nick Urata’s lovelorn slow-motion wail tumbling head over heels in the resulting torrent. The feeling this intro evokes perfectly sets the tone for the album’s first seven songs, on which DeVotchKa trades a bit of its international flavor for a sound more akin to glossy, modern New York indie pop a la Animal Collective or The Walkmen (excepting the accordion hook in “The Man from San Sebastian”).
For all intents and purposes, this album should be a sleeper. DeVotchKa has seen moderate success, headlining club tours for the past five years after the successes of their two previous albums, A Mad And Faithful Telling and How It Ends. This success was only amplified by the inclusion of their big hit “How It Ends” in the trailers for the indie film Everything Is Illuminated and the hit video game Gears of War 2.
By the time Devotchka caught their break by being asked to score Little Miss Sunshine, the band were already world-travelers, experienced in playing for burlesque shows and putting on strange live shows of their own. The breadth of experience applies to the recordings, too, which blend a variety of eastern European music with Latin and US southwestern styles, along with more mainstream rock and punk sounds. Albums like Una Volta and How It Ends were original and idiosyncratic while remaining accessible.
Chances are if you've heard of Devotchka, it's through their work on the soundtracks to Little Miss Sunshine or I Love You Phillip Morris. Ploughing a similar furrow to Beirut and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, the Denver-based band has been operating as a cult interest for more than a decade now. Devotchka mix Eastern European and South American musical styles on unashamedly dramatic and romantic ballads, at its worst a bit like the entertainment put on at a dodgy Spanish restaurant, but at its best – when they wheel out the soaring string arrangements or the moments of virtuoso musicianship – it's elegant and uplifting.
A year ago in June, DeVotchKa walked onto a French stage. It's an easy enough place to envision them, the cosmopolitan, globe-grinding Denver outfit having much lifted much of their sonic foundation from Eastern European gypsy trails that wind their way through the rest of the continent. But that stage was planted inside the Stade de France, an 80,000-capacity beast built for the 1998 World Cup Final outside Paris.
One interesting thing about the glut of multinational roots-influenced bands that cropped up in the last decade has been watching them parse their diverse influences, figuring out sustenance beyond the initial novelty of their culture colliding sounds. Devotchka’s interpretation of Balkan and Eastern European folk tropes always seemed to fall in the middle of the spectrum, not as madcap and careless as Gogol Bordello, not as elegant and structured as Beirut. That lack of a signature position has developed into a wider malaise on 100 Lovers, where, shorn of the exigencies of cramming together varied sounds, the band has slipped further into the great middle.
It’s awfully unsporting to judge a band by the quality of its typography, but here I go. Nobody expects an album cover from a raggedy world-folk-inflected indie group to rival the impeccable design of Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch Maschine, but even in a homogenizing age of jpegs and ID3 tags, font conveys tone and credibility. Say you pull into an anonymous strip mall after a long day of interstate driving and the only place open for dinner’s a decrepit Italian joint with carpet dating back to the Nixon era and sauce that looks more like chum than anything tomato-based.
Maybe it's mojo, maybe it's maturity, maybe there's something in the mile-high air in Denver, but Devotchka has harnessed a spectrum of emotions and attitudes in each of its albums, from nostalgia and longing to mischief. This has never been more true than with 100 Lovers, the indie-gypsy-mariachi-fusion quartet's sixth full-length. While Nick Urata brings a swoonworthy OMG dramz! ethos to "All the Sand in All the Sea," Tom Hagerman's masterful violin work does the narrative heavy lifting in "The Common Good." The Spanish-influenced "Ruthless" finds Urata, a twinkle in his eye, adopting the persona of a sinister ringmaster in a final showdown with his lover.