True to their vow of a battle cry, Gogol Bordello keeps “coming rougher every time”. New album Pura Vida Conspiracy, their sixth, finds them at their most ragged and unhinged, the sound of collaborative anarchism distilled into its punchiest presentation yet. So distinct and inimitable their sound, the Gypsy punk commune recognizes there’s not much point in deviating from a working paradigm, yet at the same time, Pura Vida Conspiracy does show elements of growth factored into the mix, though those aspects might not be obvious on initial listens.
Fans can rest assured the ramshackle punk uprising motif that defines Gogol Bordello has not declined and continues to sound invigorating. Not since the Pogues has an outfit so successfully merged surging punk and world music, and surely the resulting popularity is indebted to the charismatic, larger than life persona of Eugene Hütz, more a maestro in a storm than a mere frontman. With the social commentary in his lyrics and the rabble-rousing frenzy of the musical compositions they’re contained in, Hütz stands as the Ukrainian Joe Strummer. That the songs never cease to be so goddamn fun despite their lyrical weight is a testament to Hütz’s acumen as a songwriter.
Opener “We Rise Again” distills all that is Gogol Bordello — a tapestry of interwoven acoustic and electric guitars, spiraling violins, seesawing accordions, rapid fire drumming and such new age sentiments as “Borders are scars on face of the planet / So heal away / My alchemy man.” Starting with a chant surrounding the repeated title, it morphs into an anthem that, despite its lyrical themes, beckons more for revelry than staging a political coup. In the middle is Hütz giving the first of the record’s abundant sing-along choruses in his thick, Slavic accent: “With a fistful of heart and really cool future / We rise again!” Is it a rehash of ground they’ve covered before? Sure, but in the spirit of the earliest punk bands, that seems like an invalid complaint when the tune is so high-energy and kickass.
“Dig Deep Enough” carries on the idea of self-actualization and resilience amid a tune that begins with the plucked melody of a European folk song, before erupting into a stomping march of a refrain. This is a common course of action throughout the album, as nearly all of the songs seemingly bristle at the idea of restraint. Whatever effort is made to hold back and grow with subtlety is shredded in favor of cacophony. Lead single “Malandrino” best exemplifies this, starting with Hütz offering fabled self-reflection of youth with just an acoustic guitar before the bass, drums and violins come in, flushing it out without intruding. But then, come the 1:10 mark, as Hütz declares, “I was born with singing heart,” the tune detonates into the breakneck drums for the refrain. The quiet-loud-quiet dynamic continues throughout the cut, growing frenetically as it progresses.
But not everything here is business as usual. Chief among the new ingredients simmering in Gogol Bordello’s melting pot is a southwestern feel. That the record was recorded in El Paso, Texas, no doubt contributes to this. One of the most raucous and memorable tunes here, “Lost Innocent World”, carries that desert sweep sensation, and “Malandrino” has a dose of a mariachi or Latin flavor in its brass section. The psychedelic hymnal of reincarnation, “Amen”, likewise has that a hard to define drifting weariness that seems inherent to a sun-scorched landscape. On the flipside, there is the seafaring sway of “Name Your Ship”, bobbing on the rhythm of a ship adrift at sea, complete with shouted “heigh hoes”. When Hütz proclaims the chorus’s cautionary aphorism, a galley of drunken sailors yells along: “You taught your parrot to stutter / Now you repeat his own chatter / But it’s the way that you name your ship / That’s the way it’s gonna row.”
Despite the record’s focus on audible pandemonium, there are a few numbers were the band manages to tether their inclination for chaos. “I Just Realized”, for example, is restrained throughout, Hütz delivering a shuffling ballad of desperation and obsession above another Latin-tinged rhythm. “Where is the exit? / Of course, there is none,” he sings, Elizabeth Sun taking a prominent role as she delicately harmonizes and coos with him. Past experience puts the listener on guard, expecting the tune to erupt, but it never does, which serves it well. Closer “We Shall Sail” is a significant departure as well, being just Hütz on acoustic guitar singing insights both pensive and affirming. His intensity rises during the song before tapering off, ending it and the album as a whole on a quiet note. (Or, it would end it on a quiet note if a hidden bonus track didn’t arise, all metal lumbering and speed punk thrashing. Feel free to end the disc at “We Shall Sail” and ignore it.)
As always, there can be some difficulty discerning where Gogol Bordello’s tongue-in-cheek approach ends and their sincerity begins, but whether this is a limitation or a strength is itself open to interpretation. Also, in a weirdly contradictory way, the band’s big sound can its way be confining. There is no band that sounds remotely like Gogol Bordello, which means one has to be in a very specific mood to listen to them, and this record is no exception. Gypsy folk punk may be too idiosyncratic to ever be mainstream. That said, if there ever was a Gogol Bordello album that deserves to launch them onto American radio waves, it’s Pura Vida Conspiracy.
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