[1 March 2011]
By the time Devotchka caught their break by being asked to score Little Miss Sunshine, the band were already world-travelers, experienced in playing for burlesque shows and putting on strange live shows of their own. The breadth of experience applies to the recordings, too, which blend a variety of eastern European music with Latin and US southwestern styles, along with more mainstream rock and punk sounds. Albums like Una Volta and How It Ends were original and idiosyncratic while remaining accessible. Now, five years removed from the noteworthy covers EP Curse Your Little Heart and the Little Miss Sunshine work, the band continues to refine this sound, tightening an idea that seems to be too multifaceted into something increasingly coherent.
As 100 Lovers starts, you might think the band is simply moving in a more straightforward indie rock sound. Opener “The Alley”, despite the restrained strings and piano leading the song, owes heavily to the Arcarde Fire. That band’s not an unlikely influence—a high number of instruments, fun with the accordion, and a bit of history together—but usually engaging singer Nick Urata seems to follow Win Butler’s style on the vocal. The track’s pleasing, but fortunately it’s a bit of a misdirection.
Devotchka’s triumph on their new album is the increasing synthesis of their many influences. You don’t get to yell “Wheee! Mariachi!” on this first track (and really, do you want to do that anyhow?), but that doesn’t mean the band’s drifting into more radio-typical sounds. All the previous influences still present themselves throughout the album, but more seamlessly than before. Even a more exotic track (to US ears) like “The Common Good” sounds less like one tradition juxtaposed with another and more like, well, Devotchka.
Part of this development in the band’s sound might be an effect of their soundtrack work. Descriptions of the band’s work as “cinematic” have been overused since Devotchka started getting media coverage, and it’s always been a vague term, suggesting some sort of expansiveness combined with an imaginative landscaping, but without a defining sense of what makes the sound particular to film-based experience. Yet, the term is more apt on this album than it is ever has been before (except for when Devotchka’s actually written music for the cinema). Unfortunately, I’m no more apt to say what that means than I used to be. It’s like talking about jazz or pornography, I suppose, but, unlike the latter, Devotchka’s music relies on a good use of space. Whether through legato strings or a rolling rhythm, the music invites visuals, usually of the outdoors, and possibly stolen from Days of Heaven (for no reason other than at least one listener’s creative shortcomings).
In another sense, I suspect “cinematic” simply means “foreign”. For those of us not used to hearing gypsy or border music on a regular basis, tracks like “Bad Luck Heels” and “Ruthless”—two counterpoints to my argument about a more merged sound—conjure up a setting in ways bands that sound like your local downtown don’t. It’s to Devotchka’s credit, though, that listener shortcomings aren’t musical limitations. The band crafts their songs (and albums) carefully, with almost narrative arcs and strong emotional pulls.
The overall effect of 100 Lovers feels like a sweeping (see, “cinematic”!) flow, yet each song stays grounded in very precise arrangements and performances. Nothing seems out of place, but nothing seems sterile. In “100 Other Lovers”, Urata sings, “You want to be a million miles from this place”. The lyric fits the sentiment of the song, but it’s hard to reconcile it to an album that spends its length unifying varied geography, creating a place that doesn’t exist. You can’t escape it, but you wouldn’t want to anyway.