A giant pair of glasses.
That’s how it started for most of us: that’s how we first got introduced to DeVotchKa. The simple repeating synth note that opens “How It Ends” was played over footage of Abigail Breslin staring out of those enormous, trademark glasses, and that’s exactly how DeVotchKa’s world-spanning musical magic was introduced to the mainstream. In that immortal opening shot of Little Miss Sunshine, we see the images of a Miss America pageant flashed across young Olive’s beady eyes, her own head filled with dreams and fantasies that might not ever truly come to be. Of course DeVotchKa would compose the score for a film such as this: this is a band whose songs perfectly score the eclectic fantasy lands that we all construct in our heads: bizarre, delightful, and unmistakably human all at once.
Of course, a lot of people saw Little Miss Sunshine, and “the little film that could” wound up snagging monstrous box-office returns, two Oscar wins, and even a Grammy nomination for DeVotchKa. Yet what’s so dizzying about the band’s journey to semi-stardom is that their origins are remarkably humble: a group of talented misfits from Denver, CO that got together and—almost out of nowhere—wound up marrying gypsy/klezmer influences to somewhat familiar indie-rock structures, a style so unclassifiable that the only real way for them to get their sound to the people without compromise was to release it via their own label (Cicero Recordings). Of course, Sunshine changed all that, and now we are greeted with A Mad & Faithful Telling, their first album for a big label and their fourth overall (well, fifth if you count the stop-gap maxi-EP Curse Your Little Heart). However, regardless of how long you’ve known and loved the group, there’s both some good news and some bad news about Faithful Telling. The good news? DeVotchKa haven’t changed their sound a bit. The bad news? DeVotchKa haven’t changed their sound a bit.
Much like their previous efforts, the band winds up merging multiple influences into wild instrumental passages that transcend a label as simple as “world music”, all while occasionally conceding to the call of the larger-than-life pop number. But there is no sister song to “How It Ends” to be found here. In fact, the band manages to eliminate any expectations of this being a flat-out pop effort right from the get-go with “Basso Profundo”, a track filled with flamenco guitars, excitable accordions, and totally out-there vocals, all with the slight underpinnings of a tuba barely poking through the mix. Halfway through, the song slows down into a mariachi ballad, throws in an opera singer, and then moves into full on Fiddler on the Roof territory with a quickly-escalating klezmer tempo and mournful violin … and then it changes back again at the drop of hat. This wild unpredictability is something that old fans are used to, but new fans might find it a bit hard to adapt. Either way, it’s a remarkably potent listening experience.
Indeed, there’s still much fun to be had on Faithful Telling, even if it’s just in a spot-the-influence kind of way (try the Yann Tiersen influence on both “The Clockwise Witness” and “Strizzalo”, for example). The first-rate single “Transliterator” bubbles like a Sufjan Stevens track as produced by Dave Fridmann, all rounded out with a chorus that’s packed with powerful rock guitars. “Along the Way”, meanwhile, rolls like a solid mariachi-ballad, a trick that DeVotchKa have done plenty of times before, but—somehow—it has yet to get old. All these descriptors make A Mad & Faithful Telling appear like a crazed, genre-hopping mess, but Nick Urata and company still manage to synthesize all of these European overtones into structures that are both familiar and new at the same time, songs that are “fundamentally DeVotchKa”, as it were.
Yet the things that make DeVotchKa sound exciting here are the things that have always made DeVotchKa exciting: A Mad & Faithful Telling doesn’t bear a whole lot of stylistic difference from Una Volta or How It Ends. It’s not that the band is remaking the same album time and time again: it’s that they’re not adding anything new to the mix. Even if Faithful Telling is the only DeVotchKa album that you ever hear in your life, “Blessing in Disguise” really pushes your patience as it hovers around the 6-minute mark (largely because one can only take in so many mariachi ballads at a time), and the closing epic ballad, “New World”, never manages to get out of first gear, ultimately giving the disc an unfortunate anti-climax; and if that’s not enough, there’s also the very hit-or-miss nature of Urata’s lyrics. The man has a lovely voice, but often he’s singing out rehashed sentiment that we’ve all heard time and time again. When Urata’s on, however, he’s able to work some minor-key miracles, like during this verse of “Head Honcho”:
I swear it’s love
It’s love that we are dying of
You’ll know it’s true
When it breaks your heart in two
Has it always sounded like this?
My name upon your lips
Has it always taken so long
To get to this part of the song?
Even with these setbacks, Faithful Telling remains a strong, deliciously eclectic album. It won’t send the band to the top of the charts and it may not even score them any more opportunities to score movies, but it’s another strong disc from an already-great band. The band has yet to release its masterpiece, but as long as they keep putting out discs like A Mad & Faithful Telling, they’ll never stop serving as the soundtrack to the dreams of that adorable, glasses-wearing kid inside all of us.
// Notes from the Road
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