DeVotchKa: “100 Lovers”
Here, first and foremost, is what I love about DeVotchKa: They believe in romance, which is an altogether different thing than saying they believe in love, or that their music is sensual or sexy, though I suppose those things are true enough. But no, what I love about this band is that they sing about love, about matters of the heart, but not in the style of bedroom troubadours or coffee-shop poets. They prefer widescreen, full-color Panavision. They prefer to conjure exotic locales, love stories that are sweeping epics. Their old-world sound– cobbled together with startling precision from Gypsy, Latin, and European folk idioms– is married to old Hollywood values; they sounds to me like they make a great effort to entertain us, and more than that, to make us true believers, if only for the duration of the album’s play, that singer Nick Urata and the lover he is addressing in these songs are the only two people in the world, and that even if the whole world lies between them, they can and must be together, and that nothing else really matters, and that maybe– just maybe– there is a romance so ravishing, an adventure so utterly worthy, that might one day sweep us along with it, just as it has DeVotchKa.
Or to put it a slightly different way: This music makes me swoon. Maybe I should have simply said that from the start, though there is something about this record that causes my internal sense of the dramatic to swell up inside me. Regardless, what DeVotchKa does, no one else is doing, exactly; they defy irony and hollow “cleverness” in the same way that U2 did at their 80’s peak, so I suppose it’s not too surprising that both bands look to the American desert for inspiration; the opening number on 100 Lovers is called “The Alley,” and none of the particulars of the song have much in common with U2, its sense of wide-open-spaces and dusty grandeur– of something beautiful and transcendent literally rising from the the dirt and sand of the earth itself– is very Joshua Tree, right down to the slow-and-solemn, “Where the Streets Have No Name” build-up. But at the same time, it’s a very different animal; DeVotchKa has a sense of old-world romance, to say nothing of a certain self-identification with pop music, that sets them apart, and Urata’s voice, falling somewhere between opera and Orbison, speaks to something timeless and classic.
The song is a big change-up for a band that has traditionally favored something a little more instrumentally complex, but it makes sense: It’s nothing if not cinematic, and there are few bands who fit that description so well, not just because of their film score work (Little Miss Sunshine, to name one) but because they have a neat trick wherein they invoke passing remembrances of certain times and eras while maintaining a sense that these stories and songs are at once as old as the world itself and as urgent as where you’re standing today– nostalgia in favor of something timlelessly beautiful, something that never really changes.
This is an album wherein pieces of exotica are collected and then left to simmer for a while; you hear that DeVotchKa draws from a myriad of cultures and styles, and that their arrangements and performances are masterful and complex, but what is most striking is simply the warmth and humanity of this music. Some bands use this kind of globe-trotting eclecticism almost for shock value, or as a way of creating something of an intellectual puzzle, but DeVotchKa is more about aiming for the heart; it’s worth noting, I think, that the song “100 Other Lovers” has a sunny sort of groove that could easily have been concocted by Vampire Weekend— a band that I really like– but while Vampire Weekend’s music is always a little detached (can I say hip?), DeVotchKa’s is very lived-in, spacious and inviting.
There is also a clear distinction between this band’s methods and those more common to the classic rock realm; I have already offered a U2 comparison that I mean to be favorable toward both bands, but I’m a bit more mystified by what I hear as strange echoes of The Police– strange because I never cared as much for that band but am clearly pretty taken with this one. Part of it might be the fact that Urata’s voice has a weird tonal similarity to Sting’s, but I think it’s mostly because Sting was always rather intent on appropriating sounds and styles from other cultures because I think he thought they sounded classy and sophisticated; he pieced them together with a jazz man’s precision.
Contrast that with DeVotchKa, who have a song here called “The Man From San Sebastian,” which brings together an accordion sound– one which I sort of associate with a French cafe, or at the very least Vaudeville– and a driving electric guitar rhythm that’s pitched somewhere between surf rock and New Wave. This all sounds sort of like something The Police could have done, but DeVotchKa don’t sound like they’re just doing it to see how the pieces fit, but because it’s an adventure. The sound of the song is pretty far removed from anything resembling a genteel jazz bar, but rather sounds like something that just sort of came along and swept both listener and band clear off their feet. And oh yeah: It’s pretty rockin’, too.
I keep invoking other bands, and I hate to, but truly, there’s not an easy way to discuss music as unique as this. I do think this is the best DeVotchKa album, moving as it does from the panoramic grandeur of its opening song and then “All the Sand in All the Seas,” another hard-hitter, to knottier, more intricate and intimate fare like the Mariachi-flavored folk tune “Bad Luck Heels,” which takes a kind of moment-of-truth freeze-frame and makes it into a touching moment of reflection and clarity, or “Ruthless,” where Latin and Greek elements meet for a cutthroat tale that casts passion as something not just exciting, but death-defying– a good summary of the album in the whole, I think; the biggest risk here is not in any of the arrangements or idiosyncratic match-ups of cultures and musics, all of which are technically unimpeachable, but rather the way heart is worn on sleeve and the band sounds continually like they are standing on the edge of something embarrassing or unseemly, yet they nevertheless reach for the big moments. They’re all heart, these folks, and I can’t help but fall hard for them every time.