When I was in college, I briefly tried to learn to play the accordion, but the other things I succeeded at were “Stars and Stripes Forever”, “Hava Nagilah”, and causing my roomates to swing manically from amused to annoyed. Now, though, it seems like all the cool kids are playing the instrument. Groups like the Decemberists, Calexico, and new stars the Arcade Fire have crafted memorable songs around smooth squeezeboxing, and if you’re hip to the scene, you know that tango—traditional, electronic, or otherwise—is coming back.
Devotchka’s got an accordion, but it’s also got a theramin, a tuba, a bouzouki, strings, and a tenor triangle. The group needs its diverse instrumentation, of which I’ve only listed a few elements, to bring together its multitude of influences. The sound’s (de)centered around eastern European folk music, but there are more than hints of rock, punk, mariachi, Southwestern, roots, and other styles blended in. Far from a mishmash or pastiche, How It Ends contains a unified style, less a pomo mix than a well-crafted drink made from moonshine but sold in the trendiest clubs.
Despite the beauty of the mix, one of the album’s best tracks is its most rock-based. “The Enemy Guns” sounds like emotion inspired by the titular terror. The song barrels forward on a tense distorted guitar riff and a bass hit on every beat. Just before you think Devotchka’s gone all mainstream on you, though, the horns come in and throw you into an spaghetti western viewed on fast forward. Then stop. Whistle. Go! And all the while singer Nick Urata moans about his “eternal soul.” It’s scary and invigorating all at once, and then it slides into the 25 seconds of “No One Is Watching” and it’s abandoned Carpathian landscape.
If “The Enemy Guns” and “No One Is Watching” are battle and loneliness, “Dearly Departed” is loss. The vibes and glockenspiel set a soothing lullaby tone, but Urata’s tenor croon unsettles as he mourns for a love gone away. He sings, “I miss your heart beating next to mine / Flesh of my flesh, soul of my soul / Come back home.” He’s so despairing that we no his final plea cannot be fulfilled, but he can’t help but cry it. Then the lullaby sounds resume to carry us away, too. The slow thematic demise peaks with “This Place Is Haunted”. Urata’s harmonizing with himself often keeps the lyrics from being intelligible, but the mood comes across all the more for it. As the singer wants someone to stay, we hear the laughter of children, who could be ghosts of the place, or of the past, and the song cuts off abruptly.
Despite the loss running throughout the album (I haven’t even mentioned “We’re Leaving”), How It Ends is not a joyless listen. It’s full of the gothic and exotic, but it’s a pleasure to hear. The song’s character’s might be dead or missing, but the band’s musicians—Urata, Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King, and Tom Hagerman—are fully present and energized. The album’s penultimate track, “Lunnaya Pogonka” slowly builds in volume and tempo, reclaiming the album’s music for the living, before fading away with the lovely “Reprise”.
But now that we’re finished with the album, let’s return to the beginning (which is how this review ends). “You Love Me” the lead-off track builds around a strummed acoustic guitar and vocal harmony between Urata and Schroder. The relationship in the song has suspicion and violence and doubt and lack and regret and end. Still, you can’t help loving music this beautiful, this sad and lovely. And maybe that’s how it ends, for whatever “it” is.