Album: This Night Falls Forever
In Brief: Ten songs after a seven-year absence might seem like a meager offering from most bands, but DeVotchKa ensures that their long-awaited return is an engrossing and intoxicating listen. The Latin rock influences may not be as pronounced this time around, but the strings, whistling, and other exotic bits of instrumentation all help to give this record an adventurous, otherworldly aura that isn’t easily forgotten. This Night Falls Forever can be a bit of an emotionally intense listen at first, but it’s definitely worth your time.
Seven years seems like an eternity in the music business. It’s certainly a long time to go between albums for a lot of bands, and for all but the most high-visibility artists, it’s usually enough to make the general public go “Who was that again?” when they re-emerge. Usually, a band won’t disappear that long without any real indication of what’s going on behind the scenes. Most likely, they’ll formally announce a breakup or hiatus, or at the very least, you’ll see that members of the band are busy with other projects. In the case of DeVotchKa, who put out one of my favorite albums of 2011 with 100 Lovers, I couldn’t seem to find any such news, despite the fact that they were in fact working on film soundtracks and actively touring. Their Wikipedia page seemed frozen in amber, with a 2012 live album being the only thing they had to show for the last several years, right up until a new single suddenly dropped in the summer of 2018 with no apparent explanation. I’m sure the explanation was all there, if only I had been more persistent with my Googling. But the long gap didn’t seem to indicate any dramatic restructuring of the band, or falling out between members or with their label, or personal woes launching their frontman Nick Urata into a prolonged period of soul-searching, existential crisis, and/or extreme writer’s block. They simply started work on an album, and it got back-burnered a whole lot due to everyone being busy with stuff, and then eventually they finished it and were like, “Wow, guess that took a lot longer than we expected.” That’s not much of a story to spin into a press release when promoting a new record, but the great thing about DeVotchKa’s long awaited comeback, This Night Falls Forever, is that it doesn’t need a gimmick to sell it anyway.
So… who was that again? Let’s assume you’ve never heard of DeVotchKa, which is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, even if you’ve happened across a single of theirs by sheer luck in the past and didn’t realize it was them, or you watched Little Miss Sunshine back in the mid-2000s and never bothered to ask who came up with the quirky soundtrack. DeVotchKa is an indie rock band from Denver, Colorado with a rich blend of Latin and European folk influences, a flair for the romantic and dramatic, and a history of being the soundtrack for both indie films and burlesque shows. They’ve been active since the turn of the century, and depending on how you count, they’re up to about eight studio albums now. To listen to one of their albums is to be transported to a world full of melancholy stories and underhanded political machinations, where the subject matter could be unrequited love on one track and a clandestine uprising against on oppressive government on the next. Their lyrics don’t tend to be blatantly political, but there’s something subversive about a lot of them, which couples well with the mysterious aura of the instrumentation, as if to make you like you’re getting a peek behind the curtain into the seedy underbelly of a supposedly benevolent government. All four members of the band are talented multi-instrumentalists, meaning you’ll gets things like accordions and strings and trumpets and theremin and bouzoukis and sousaphones and dense percussion all fighting for space on several tracks, with the robust, world-weary vocals of Urata to lead the way. At times the guy’s voice reminds me of an alt-folk or jazz-influenced troubadour like Joe Henry, but with a flair for the more upbeat and showy side of live performance, and when he whistles, as he does on a few tracks here, it’s deeply reminiscent of Andrew Bird. Most crucially, even though this band arguably got a bit of a bump due to ornate, baroque instrumentation being all the rage in indie music in the 2000s (which is kind of how I got into them, having heard few things in the genre that I didn’t like after I first laid ears on Sufjan Stevens all those years ago), one gets the feeling that they were doing this long before it was cool, and are content to keep doing it long after the ship has sailed on it potentially becoming trendy.
This Night Falls Forever turns out to be quite an engrossing album, given what it could have been. Only ten songs coming from a band that hadn’t put out new studio in seven years could easily be a disappointing hodgepodge, the kind of thing that felt like what few ideas a band had left had been stretched out with filler and half-hearted studio experiments to fit the definition of an album in a desperate bid to make sure fans didn’t forget about them completely. But this album comes fully formed, the songs almost bursting at the seams with rich instrumentation, puzzling lyrics, and generous run times. It’s a good fifty minutes of music, meaning that the average track length is about five, which actually made the album a bit difficult for me to digest at first, because the emotional intensity of it is pretty thick from the get-go, and there aren’t really a whole lot of mellow or contemplative moments for the listener to catch their breath. For sure, there are ballads on this record to serve as a counterpoint to the more upbeat, percussive stuff, but even those tend to have rich and gooey melodies, big haunting hooks, and a lot of instrumental layers. I consider it a good thing that I had to wrestle with this one for a bit, despite finding 100 Lovers to be pretty catchy on first listen back in 2011. This Night Falls Forever takes a bit more effort before the bits and pieces of it start to burrow into your brain, but it’s a solid example of a band taking the time to put their best foot forward despite having a disparate set of songs they were piecing together over a very long period of time. This is a record that feels like it has a definitive beginning and end, and that takes you on a journey rather than just being a set of songs that were arbitrarily thrown together to meet a quota. Throughout a lot of it, I get the feeling that no matter how much emotional, relational, and political upheaval its characters had been through, they found it important to document the things they were seeing, hearing, and feeling in the midst of that turmoil, in order to preserve those memories and to remember years or even decades later how those experiences shaped them. I’m often a sucker for nostalgia, but DeVotchKa never seems to play that card for its own sake on this record, instead choosing to evoke memories as a way of demonstrating how one fateful decision or one eventful night can forever change a person. That makes this a record that I’m likely to look back on many years later and still remember quite fondly. It’s certainly one that I’ll be putting on my short list for the best of 2018.
1. Straight Shot
The band kicks right into high gear with this track, which is a nice contrast to the long, slow build of “The Alley” on 100 Lovers. Hearing this track with no other context after seven years of mostly silence from the band, I was pretty excited but also confused, wondering if this five-and-a-half minute barn-burner was just a one-off single, a spectacle in and of itself not meant as an album track. It’s certainly the kind of thing that stands on its own well, due to the multiple lead guitar lines meshing nicely with the Spanish-style acoustic guitar in the background, and the nimble percussion bringing to mind the band’s Latin influences. Nick Urata is found in a rather wistful mood here, almost feeling like he can reach out and touch old memories from the neighborhood he used to live in as if that stuff all happened yesterday. He looks across town from where he lives now and feels a fondness for those run-down places “where my true love still resides” – a lot of the lyrics seem to imply that he’s moved on and she hasn’t. Perhaps it was the music business that separated them – his yearning for a time “Back when all the stars were aligned, before all the paperwork got signed” seems to imply that the lifestyle of a traveling musician got in the way. Or perhaps there was a marriage and subsequent divorce, and now they’re living separate lives on opposite sides of town that might as well be foreign countries. The sadness is palpable despite the upbeat musical atmosphere – the air is thick with regret for time wasted but also crackling with the electric possibilities of an unknown future waiting just around the bend. If I had to pick one track to introduce a new fan to the DeVotchKa sound, I really couldn’t think of a better choice than this one. While it feels more like an album’s centerpiece than the kind of thing I’d have expected the band to lead off with, I appreciated that they wasted no time getting to some of their meatiest and most musically satisfying material.
2. Let Me Sleep
While the second track backs off a bit on the percussion, mostly preferring hand drums to the full sound of a conventional drum kit, the strings, upright bass, and Urata’s falsetto vocals are more than sufficient to ratchet up the drama. His vocal melody is almost disorienting at first due to how he starts off in that higher register, the notes seeming to reflect a restless night of tossing and turning in bed, perhaps having fever dreams about a lover he can’t have or regrets having. Even though a lot of DeVotchKa’s lyrics are steeped in romanticism, there’s also a sense of danger to a lot of them, especially in this song which seems to imply that the person’s he’s losing over is in a position of power over him, such as a military commander or even a queen: “Out here is the last place I wanted to be/A foot solider in your standing army/With my best years somewhere far behind me.” The verses seem to imply a sort of Faustian bargain that he has made in order to be with her – she grants eternal youth, she can turn dust into diamonds, they travel the world together… but deep down he continually hungers for more and it gnaws away at his soul. This is what I mean when I say this album is emotionally intense – the lyrics tend to be more flowery than they are blunt or explicit, so while you’re not being bludgeoned to death with an overtly depressing narrative, your mind has to follow the high-wire act of euphoria and deep despair than the band is deftly performing, and it’s a lot to take in because of the conflicting emotions a song like this can inspire. To me, that’s deep stuff. it keeps me coming back to find the contrasting details I’d initially missed in my attempt to grasp the overall mood of the song.
3. Lose You in the Crowd
I’m often tempted to say that the strings are the MVPs of this album. That’s especially apparent in the breezy, staccato opening of this song, that soon meets up with the rumble of the upright bass and the rattling drums. It’s easy to feel like you’re being swept up in some sort of a movement that you’re unprepared for as you listen to this one, which is appropriate, since it seems to be about a man trying to hold on to a woman despite the forceful motion of a crowd surrounding them, wanting their relationship to be more than a temporary fling, but seeming a bit resigned to the inevitability of them only being in each other’s lives for a short but life-changing series of moments. There are a lot of lazy love songs out there that seem to imply a couple can resist the arrival of the next day if they just try hard enough, and stay in their blissful little moment forever. A song like this one realizes that’s an unattainable fantasy, but makes you feel the understandable longing for things to work out that way. I’d be interested to know the specific cause of separation that inspired this song – I know there were a few songs on 100 Lovers that dealt with migratory movement and the notion of people being separated by political boundaries or humanitarian crises. Their buddies in Calexico write about this topic a fair amount as well. This one sort of feels like it could have been a Calexico song in a parallel universe – though I’d imagine the instrumentation would have been more subtle and whispery, rather than wide open with the sort of sweeping movement that DeVotchKa has such a knack for.
4. Love Letters
The plucked strings at the beginning of this song are a really interesting hook – and my curiosity is piqued even more by how the band drops into an entirely different key for the verse immediately after that intro. The puzzle pieces come together seamlessly enough once the overall melodic structure of the song is revealed, but it’s kind of a neat trick that there’s enough twisting and turning going on there that I don’t explicitly notice the change back to the original key when that intro part comes back around. This is a beautifully weird little waltz of a song – the strings go back and forth between that quirky intro and more conventional string passages that evoke a sense of sheer lovestruck euphoria, there’s actually a bit of rock guitar here and there, and perhaps most interestingly, the backing vocals of bassist and multi-instrumentalist Jeanie Schroeder are more prominent here – they never take over the lead from Urata, but they seem to imply that there’s a second voice in this conversation that the protagonist is only half listening to. That’s the best way I can explain this series of stanzas that seems to mostly pine to get an old lover back, wondering if she could possibly still be in love with him after all these years, but that every now and then seems to turn bluntly critical: “Are you still in love with the sound of your voice?/It floats all around and above all the noise/And then it grows fingers and scratches my skin/And plucks at my heartstrings ’til I let you in.” That’s a really interesting counterpoint to the sort of love song lyrics you often hear that basically feature a guy assuming that if he pleads hard enough, a girl will be worn down enough to take a chance on him even though all he’s really got going for himself is that he wants her really bad. I guess this song shows the limits of that approach, with the twist that these two have been in a relationship before and may well have ended it because he was a little too intense for her. The most heartbreaking line also seems to be the most naively hopeful one: “Somewhere back in your memory, there’s a younger, prettier version of me.” The years have not been kind to these two people, I think, and as alluring as that invitation to just forget everything that happened in the ensuing years and jump right back into their youthful love affair might be, the song seems to end with a sense of resignation that this just isn’t realistic.
5. Empty Vessels
After the more complex arrangements of the past few songs, I suppose it’s permissible at this point to fall back on the “four chords of pop”. You know ’em well at this point – you could probably sing U2‘s “With or Without You” or about a million other songs along with the chord progression of this one without it feeling even slightly forced. This track sort of serves the same breather role that “Exhaustible” did on 100 Lovers – it’s noticeably more straightforward and poppy, but they still achieve it by way of interesting instrumentation – bright guitar and keyboards, and most notably a trembling cello. It adds an undercurrent of tension to an otherwise easygoing track with a simple lyrical conceit. “We’ve got all the time in the world to kill/And we’re just empty vessels for the world to fill”, Urata sings in the chorus, which depending on your outlook, could be a really nihilistic way of looking at the world, or a really hopeful one. This seems to have been written from more of a youthful perspective, a time when major life-changing events have yet to imprint themselves on a person, and I find that interesting in the greater context of this album which so often looks back at a man’s younger days with a sense of regret or at least curiosity about what could have been. If a much younger vocalist were singing these exact words, I’d probably take it at face value (though I’d still note the subtle but effective rhymes in the verse that elevated it above typical pop song rhyme schemes – “graveyard” with “behavior”, “tragic” with “traffic”, that sort of thing). Coming from Urata at this juncture in his career, it carries a lot more weight, because the album so far has really hammered home that we can’t return to this innocent state, no matter how much the core of our very being might scream for a second chance to go back and attain a different outcome.
6. Done with Those Days
The whistling in this song straight up haunts me. I mean that in a good way. After just two listens, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s a melody that sounds hopeful enough to rise toward the heavens, and yet there’s a heavy weight trying to pull it down at the same time. This is appropriate for a slower, more reflective song that seems to be about post-traumatic stress. Rather than addressing a current or former lover, the lyrics here seem to address a group of compatriots – words like “cousins” and “brothers” are used to address the audience here, implying that these are people he’s been to hell and back with. While the lyrics reflect a bit of sunlight shining through the sadness, as if whatever threat once existed has now been vanquished, the specter of those harrowing times still appears to haunt these people, leading to the realization, “You thought you were done with those days, but they ain’t done with you.” I feel like this is relatable if you’ve ever been through a depression that dragged on for far longer than you wanted it to. (Which, honestly, is all of them.) The instrumentation might be more subdued here and the pace a little slower, but the shuffling percussion and the baritone guitar are still excellent companions to Urata’s words of battered wisdom. I don’t even know if there’s a definable chorus here in the conventional sense, but the eerie whistled hook more than makes up for it – and when he sings that melody instead of whistling it, there’s an almost theremin-like quality to his voice. Powerful stuff.
7. My Little Despot
The album’s longest track, at just shy of six minutes, is up next, and this one most definitely fills the space available with all manner of colorful and mysterious sounds. The drumming is almost claustrophobic here, even bringing in a bit of Brazilian influence here and there – I’m used to hearing those sounds in much cheerier, “beachier” music, so with the more dramatic, minor-key approach taken here, it’s easy to imagine the song taking place in some banana republic deep in the jungle, ruled with an iron fist by a stone cold dictator. But not some ordinary stone cold dictator – she also happens to be the lover of this song’s protagonist, which gives the song a sneaky “political espionage” sort of vibe on top of the relational difficulties it’s trying to describe. The strings come wafting through like the smoke of a distant fire trying to send a danger signal, and some Latin-style trumpets come in at one point just to give it a bit of a “spaghetti western” feel. So much great stuff to work with here, all in support of a song about a man who appears to have gotten himself in way too deep with a treasonous, government-overthrowing conspiracy just so that his girlfriend could have her own little patch of land to reign supreme over. Seeing her absolute power fully unleashed and the apparent crimes against humanity that she is now free to commit, he seems to be having a “My God, what have I done?” sort of moment. It could all be a metaphor for a woman who was just especially cruel in a relationship, for all I know, but it’s written like a nail-biting political conspiracy thriller.
8. Break Up Song
This is the one song I’m not really feeling on this album – and it isn’t for lack of trying on the band’s part. The slow, melodramatic intro and outro that state a man’s intent to dump his cruel girlfriend once she wakes up certainly set the stage nicely, and there’s some admirable percussion and distorted guitar work here, but overall they went really heavy on the accordion and this one almost feels like a sea shanty. I wouldn’t mind that so much if not for the lyrics, which are a bit blunt by DeVotchKa’s usual standards, simply proclaiming that this woman spends all of a guy’s money and time and is nothing but an endless source of stress. There are some amusing bits in there like “I’m gonna sell back all my suits and shave my pompadour” that give us another hint Urata might just be playing a character, perhaps one who doesn’t even exist in the modern era. This could be a very twisted reflection of a tragic 50s doo-wop ballad, if I stretch the definition far enough. It’s the one song on the album where the execution gets a bit tedious and I’m not really on board with the intent of the song in the first place. it just sounds mean. In context of the song preceding it, where “that girl of mine” is a ruthless dictator, I suppose it might carry a bit more weight, but this one does nothing to carry the metaphor from that song, so I have to assume these are two distinct stories with different inspirations.
The most straightforward and conventionally “rock” song on the album is also its shortest (though at just under four and a half minutes, even a song like this that goes straight for the jugular isn’t in a huge hurry to wrap things up). Unsurprisingly, this was the second single released – it’s got a big electric guitar hook that helps to establish the unusual chord progression right from the get-go, making sure it gets stuck in your head even though it takes a few listens to get comfortable with the unusual interval between its two main chords. I was skeptical at first about what it meant for DeVotchKa to set a lot of their otherworldly instrumentation aside in favoring of rocking out like this – there’s still organ in there, and of course the percussion and bass are top-notch, so even with a more conventional arrangement, this group is no slouch. What’s most intriguing to me, aside from that oddly catchy melody, is how it blurs the lines between the “long lost lover” and “battle compatriot” sorts of relationships we’ve heard about elsewhere on the album – this could just as easily be about a man propositioning a woman who is hurt and confused and looking for shelter to bed down with him for a night, as it could be about two soldiers digging a foxhole and hunkering down until the firefight above them stops. (Whether you hear one particular line in the chorus as “It ain’t right to be battened down like strangers” or “It ain’t right to be bedding down like strangers” will heavily influence which of these two paths you choose to take.) It took me a while to realize that this was actually my favorite track on the album. It’s the one I find myself returning to most often – even more so than the impressively panoramic “Straight Shot”.
10. Second Chance
I love how the intro of this song fakes you out at first – the first two chords sound a lot like the intro to “Angels”, as interpreted by the burgeoning string section, but then the chord progression keeps rising, leading us into another whistled melodic hook. That’s a potent ingredient that I’m actually glad Urata uses only a few times on this album, to avoid making it feel like a gimmick that would dilute the power of individual songs if it were overused. His vocals are definitely at their most scenery-chewing on this one, as he starts off pretty much full blast with a lot of yelped high notes. I happen to really enjoy his vocal performances throughout this record, but I’ll be honest, if you start to find his unusual approach grating midway through the album, it’s probably gonna be a chore for you to make it across the finish line with this song. The entire band pulls together so incredibly well here that I can’t really consider it a misstep, though. The strings feel a little bit less dark and more sentimental, the guitars are trembling with anticipation, and even though the song seems to be about letting go of people who don’t seem to really love you and hoping in vain that a few of them might eventually come back around, the instrumentation seems to end the record on a graceful and hopeful note, finding a depressed and aging man finally coming to a place of acceptance that he’s lived a meaningful life, even if he feels like he has nothing but old songs and fleeting memories to show for it now.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Straight Shot $2
Let Me Sleep $1.50
Lose You in the Crowd $1.25
Love Letters $1.75
Empty Vessels $1
Done with Those Days $1.50
My Little Despot $1.50
Break Up Song $.50
Second Chance $1.50
Nick Urata: Lead vocals, guitars, piano, trumpet, theremin, bouzouki
Tom Hagerman: Violin, accordion, piano, melodica
Jeanie Schroder: Sousaphone, upright bass, flute, backing vocals
Shawn King: Drums, percussion, trumpet, accordion, organ
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: