Whatever your ideas of Balkan beats are, Kottarashky & the Rain Dogs have them covered somewhere along the way on their new album Doghouse. Layers of brass? Check. Django Reinhardt-adjacent jazz? In spades. Polyphonic folk vocals? Naturally. Gogol Bordello-esque irreverence? Of course. The group even interpolates a short line of “Hound Dog” into the mix at one point to keep you on your toes. It’s a lot for any band to take on in a single record, but Kottarashky & the Rain Dogs are determined to do the most they possibly can here.
In that, they succeed. The opening tracks “Cats In” and “Dogs Out” are rowdy, swinging takes on something akin to jazz manouche, bar-friendly and playful pieces that lead into bluesier “Drunken Fish”. Doghouse quickly changes direction from there. The quivering brass of “Early Song” backs melancholy Bulgarian vocals and simmering funk percussion. “Gyuro” is a lively, winding brass ensemble piece with sharp beats and a more sinuous, heartstring-tugging song.
“Hare Nishto” is a constantly shifting nexus of intriguing parts: airy kaval, electric guitar, accordion backbeats, staccato horns, and a quirky, multilingual rap break breaking up more languid verses. “Moma” starts Doghouse‘s closing section of female-fronted tracks, followed by folk-trip hop track “Ni Lah”, heated “Zalvera”, and stinging blues rock finale “Zaide”, the latter easily the album’s most exciting piece.
In short, it’s a lot, and it’s presented less like a unified release than an entire showcase. That seems to be as intended. Sofia-based frontman Nikola Gruev (the eponymous Kottarashky) is something of a sound collector, and Doghouse is particularly exemplary in that regard, fusing as it does Bulgarian folk and global pop sounds in forms he describes as “Balkan psychedelic”, a term that perhaps indicates the complexity of his artistic vision more than any particular sound. Gruev’s is a consistently motley musical approach, and while he seems entirely uninterested in remaining within narrow generic conventions, he is interested in blurring and bouncing off of them.
There are some noticeable weak points. Many of the electronic beats and synth lines sound a little chintzy, especially on “Early Song”, and these don’t do justice to the unequivocal virtuosity of the vocal and brass lines. In this contrast, though, the Rain Dogs’ potential is perhaps even clearer: with higher production values, this group could climb to the top of their field, however defined. The skills and sensibilities are there, along with heaps of style, and the deeper into the album you go, the more layers Kottarashky reveals of all such things.
Kottarashky and the Rain Dogs dig deep into the possibilities of contemporary Balkan folk-pop assemblages on Doghouse. There is much here that is truly exquisite, especially in the final four cuts, and even more, that is simply a fun time for audiences who don’t take genre too seriously. There’s also endless space for the group to roam in this same promising vein, and thus perhaps the album’s greatest takeaway: there are many paths for Kottarashky and his group to explore, each one unique and worth spending some time to play.