In Brief: DeVotchKa has a real flair for otherworldly drama. It’s hard to create compact pop albums that are this epic and thrillingly inventive, but that’s exactly what they’ve done here.
Bring up the name DeVotchKa, and if someone’s heard of the band, their exposure will likely have been through the film Little Miss Sunshine. The offbeat comedy, one of my favorite films of 2006, had the bulk of its soundtrack performed by the Denver band, and thus the film’s unusual mixture of madcap adventure, profanity-laden family drama, and genuinely heartwarming character moments got nicely embellished by the band’s pan-European approach, Spanish guitars and horns and strings and accordions all at the ready. I was too busy geeking out over the fact that Sufjan Stevens scored a bit of silver screen exposure to notice the incidental music that made up the rest of the soundtrack, so I foolishly let the name DeVotchKa slip my mind for a few years, only to resurface recently. We can now file them under my list of “Better late then never” discoveries.
Popping in DeVotchKa’s latest album, 100 Lovers, immediately puts me in the mood for a road trip along stretches of the Mediterranean coast, as the band wears its Spanish, Greek, and Eastern European influences quite readily on its sleeve. At times it’s merely an affectation, mixed in with string arrangements and synthesized elements not too far removed from modern pop music, and at other times it seems to take full control, turning the band’s music into a sun-drenched fiesta. Superficially, this mixture of sounds reminds me of Burlap to Cashmere, a group which debuted with a bang in the late 90’s and then disappeared (themselves only just attempting a comeback this year), but look beyond simple labels and the two bands are actually quite different, with DeVotchKa leaning a little farther away from the simpler folk songs and singer/songwriter oriented stuff, and giving the full band ample opportunity to take over. Indeed, the music sometimes overshadows the lyrics, many of which continue to mystify me. Part of that might be due to the slightly raspy, but thoroughly dramatic delivery of Nick Urata, who could probably have been singing traditional boleros in another life, but who seems perfectly content to take the less beaten path with this ragtag bunch of multi-instrumentalists instead. Imagine a more lively Calexico, or Vampire Weekend if they were obsessed with South America instead of Africa, and you’ll sort of get the idea.
100 Lovers, though it may be a bit brief at only 10 full songs, sounds like the band had a total blast making it. Though there are occasions where a song seems to merely simmer when it could have boiled, the album ebbs and flows from slow-building, sweeping drama to the more full-on “foreign party” stuff, with a pseudo-ballad or two and a couple interludes thrown in for good measure. I get the sense from these guys that albums are only the tip of the iceberg, and that while so much of 100 Lovers is brimming with otherworldly, romantic charm, it’s really just a template for what must be a killer live show. They pull off a mixture of edgy and classy that makes it somewhat hard to believe the group began life as a backing band for a burlesque show. (What I’m hearing here is totally family-friendly, though – just FYI.) Since it’s a disc that tickles both the part of my brain that loves unusual combinations of instruments all blaring at once, and the part that enjoys unraveling unusual lyrics (including occasional bilingual ones), it’s pretty easy to see why this disc scores an easy “A” in my book.
1. The Alley
It seems strange for what is essentially a folk/rock album to start with a wash of synthesizers, but listen as this dramatic opener gradually settles to earth, strings all a flutter and piano ringing out as rolling drums and a speedy bass line begin to pick up steam. Nick Urata’s voice drips with pathos, sounding equally frustrated and lovelorn as he sings of the cruel game of chance that a relationship turns out to be – “Who among you can resist/Her fingers wrapped around your wrist/From the beast she pulls a lover/From this world you’ll need no other.” Sure, it’s a bit on the showy, production-heavy side of things, but it’s no less beautiful for it, and the song eases us quite nicely into DeVotchKa’s exotic world as it fades out and then quite suddenly collides with the next track.
2. All the Sand in All the Sea
There’s an unrelenting keyboard riff that leads this song off, and that persists through out most of it – Tom Hagerman is playing his rear end off and hopefully loving every second of it. The acoustic guitars strum quickly to keep up, while the electric trembles nervously. Surprisingly it’s Shawn King‘s percussion that shows restraint here, knowing when to change up the beat to drive the chorus home or when to barrel loudly into the next verse, but mostly avoiding adding clutter to a track that is already quite busy. (Fitting, for a song that states in the midst of its mostly enigmatic lyrics: “Waiting for the drums to kick in/You want to free your earthbound limbs.”) I enjoy busy songs, so to me this one’s great fun, its moody chord changes and its danceable rhythm keeping my mind in constant motion. The vocal performance is one of Urata’s best moments as he belts out the high notes on the chorus. The song raves and fumes about vain attempts to buy and sell and own the whole world, and through it all there’s that feeling of trying to grasp more than you can hold, which is wonderfully echoed by the alluring but slippery texture of the music.
3. 100 Other Lovers
The quasi-title track is one of the few that took its time to grow on me – once again we have some fluttery synth sounds coming from the keyboard, and those seem dropped in from a more pop-friendly universe, so that initially threw me for a bit. Once the basic rhythm settles in, with Jeanie Schroder pulling double duty as she provides a beautiful flute intro and a distinctive bass line, while drums and handclaps trading off with one another in an intoxicating rhythm. This is still DeVotchKa at their otherworldly best, just taking better advantage of the studio and their ability to layer things. No idea how this would work live, but there’s a winsome enough rhythm and melody at its core that the song should prove adaptable. The song seems to be the lament of a man whose lover has tired of him – he knows she’s got other interests pulling her every which way, but she tries to hide those things and he cooperatively pretends he doesn’t notice them. The relationship’s on the verge of bursting apart at the seams, but there’s some sort of fantasy mode he stays stuck in, pining as the pretty music flows along: “I guess it’s just as easy if you lie to me.”
4. The Common Good
Wow, the strings are really dominant here in the front half of the album. I tend to fixate on the Latin/Spanish elements – the acoustic guitars and horns and some of the percussion – to the point where I forget that the band has a talented violinist and they’re not just hiring a string section. Feel free to whip out your sombrero and your dancing shoes for this one, since the strings are at play with lively hand claps in the song’s intro, and the effect is so intoxicating that I feel like I could go fight a bull. Once the more “rock” elements kick in, though, the song loses a bit of steam. The electric guitar, while it blends in well enough elsewhere, feels like too straightforwardly American of an intrusion when it chimes in on the verse, and the chorus seems to plow ahead with more of a by-the-numbers rhythm, despite the drummer’s best attempt to liven it up. It’s a bitter and conflicted song, with Urata convinced that a lover is “gonna chew me up and spit me out”, and the music grow to an appropriately angsty level of dissonance near the end. But getting to that point is a bit of a hodgepodge. And I don’t mind conflicting elements in a song, but they’ve blended such things better elsewhere on the album.
5. Interlude 1
This is just 40 seconds of noodling around on the violin against some ambient background noise, before an accordion riff signals a transition to the next song. I’m not sure why they bothered making it a separate track, as the album’s back cover and liner notes ignore it completely, even going so far as to list the song that follows as #5.
6. The Man From San Sebastian
Production nitpicks aside, that sure is one bad-@$$ accordion riff. You probably didn’t think that the accordion could sound bad-@$$, did you? Well, you were wrong, though to be fair, it helps that it’s bolstered by an electric guitar melody that’s part surf and part spy movie. The result is a thrilling blend of DeVotchKa’s trademark Eastern European and Spanish influences, and the soundtrack to some sort of action movie. It’s fitting, for a song that sounds obliquely political, with Urata nearly getting lost in the maelstrom of sound as he tries to be the voice of reason amidst a growing riot: “I don’t want to spoil the fun, but am I the only one who sees what’s going on?/Am I the only one who remembers the man from San Sebastian?” because I am a geography nerd, I know that San Sebastian is a city in the Basque region of Spain, a place in which there are conflicting and sometimes volatile views about its independence. That may have nothing to do with the song, but I always picture some sort of rogue resistance army when I listen to this one. Specifically, a rogue resistance army that tries to get people’s attention with exploding accordions.
This is the record’s other obvious pop song, though it’s more in the “jangle-pop” mode, driven by ramshackle acoustic guitar, bass, and unbelievably cheery whistling. The programmed drums that chime in almost feel like an afterthought – they don’t ruin the song for me, but I see how some could feel it detracts from the song’s otherwise organic setting. (Though listen to the background – is that a theremin? That’s odd even considering the disparate elements that are already present.) As love songs go, this might be the only one on the album that exhibits more bravado – Urata is clearly convicted of his own failings and the fact the person he’s infatuated with also isn’t as “all that” as she thinks she is, but he figures they’ve got a good shot at happiness despite their limitations. His attempts to woo her with this freakish pop song, complete with a children’s chorus that finishes the song off with a collective giggle, are bizarre to say the least, but it’s the weirdness that actually makes it one of my favorites on the album.
8. Interlude 2
Now this interlude is truly pointless – just 20 seconds of a clattering rhythm that goes nowhere and falls apart. It doesn’t seem thematically connected to anything surrounding it, but it’s not long enough to detract from the album in any way, so we’ll just forget it and move on.
9. Bad Luck Heels
Awww, yeah! This one pulls out all the stops to steep the listener in the sounds of Spain, with its rich acoustic strumming, its bold mariachi trumpets, and its delightful, fast-paced rhythm that seems to count off “1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2” just to give an otherwise fluid 6/8 a bit of a twist. I fell in love with this one based on the musical and vocal performances alone (again, it’s one of Urata’s most dramatically nuanced offerings), but the lyrics also tug at my heartstrings, sprinkling in little bits of Spanish as they try to woo a Señorita who is all dressed up with nowhere to go. I can just picture a feisty couple flamenco-ing circles around each other when I listen to this one. It’s my favorite on the album, hands-down, and easily the track I’d offer someone if I could only choose one to get them hooked on the band.
The heavy Latin influence continues here with the Spanish-style guitar arpeggios and the conga drums, complimenting another song that wanders into Spanglish territory (and also Latin – and I mean the actual Latin language, not just “Latin America” Latin), as it rather smugly addresses the subject of hubris. It’s almost as if a musician is poking fun at himself and his willingness to do anything for a gig – “Any time you wanna use us/it’s the only way we survive.” It’s a fun performance that I can easily see the band extending into a lengthy breakdown during their live show, giving every member ample time to show off on their various instruments. While the album version keeps it to five minutes, there’s still plenty of room for the guitar, drums, and strings to strut their stuff, not so much in showy solos, but just in the way that they interlock to create a killer soundtrack. Listening to this one reminds me of the first time that Burlap to Cashmere’s “Basic Instructions” first brought a smile to my face over ten years ago – though obviously the subject matter is drastically different.
There’s this ridiculous sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which Fred Armisen plays the host of a trashy Puerto Rican talk show that requires its guest to do a ridiculous and exhausting dance every time someone enters or exits the stage, that this song always reminds me of. It’s the fast-paced, tumbling melody of the accordion that does it for me. I have no idea if that and the peppy horns bear any other resemblance to Puerto Rican music, specifically, but in any event, this one’s a total party. It seems to take the mood of the previous song and build upon it, as a man tries but fails to resist a forbidden dance with a woman he doesn’t belong with. That’s one interpretation. But then there’s the more political angle, which is keyed on a second verse that discusses approaching the border and having a person’s reduced to the mere possession of the proper papers (or the lack thereof). So it’s… an immigration love song? I have no idea. It’s worth noting that the line “Are you with me or against me” is easily mis-heard as “Are you with me? Oh, kiss me!”, which only further fuels my confusion.) Who cares, it’s a blast either way.
The album concludes with an instrumental, quite possibly titled after the film that provided the band with their relative fame. It’s mostly a jam session for Shawn King’s drum kit, showing off its various metallic sounds as a sun-drenched string section plays along to the easygoing rhythm. The melody’s a bit on the repetitive side here, and I’m not sure if we needed five full minutes of it to get the point (some of that space could have been more aptly filled by a few members getting to solo or something rather than everyone following the ensemble), but it’s such a laid-back and cheery way to end the album that I really don’t mind. It keeps the emotional high from the last few tracks and eases it beautifully across the finish line.
I’ll file this one along with Vampire Weekend’s Contra under my list of short, but sweet albums that I put on when I need an unconventional pick-me-up. I could think of other albums that have more depth and length than this, and that arguably are more deserving of the five-star rating I’m giving out here, but I figure it’s a worthwhile accomplishment in its own right to create the “perfect pop album” and do it with your own exotic approach to keep the music fresh, making it just as much about the performance and the overall mood as it is about catchy hooks and riffs. 100 Lovers wins on any of those levels, and I get the feeling that it’s just an entry point to the rich history of a band that I plan to explore soon.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Alley $1
All the Sand in All the Sea $1.50
100 Other Lovers $1
The Common Good $1
Interlude 1 $0
The Man From San Sebastian $1.50
Interlude 2 $0
Bad Luck Heels $2
Nick Urata: Lead vocals, guitar, bouzouki, piano, theremin, trumpet
Tom Hagerman: Piano, violin, accordion, melodica
Jeanie Schroder: Backing vocals, sousaphone, flute, double bass
Shawn King: Percussion, trumpet
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.