It’s hard to write about Gogol Bordello without using words like “phenomenon.” A band that builds its career around fusing Roma folk and punk rock ought to be pretty well-insulated from commercial success, but thanks to their relentless touring, legendarily frenetic live performances, and a steady cult following (including such prominent media figures as Liev Schreiber and Madonna), they grew a substantial audience over the course of the past decade. Yet this popular acclaim hasn’t always added up to critical success. The band’s detractors have dismissed Gogol Bordello as “kitsch,” a gypsy minstrel show, or, worse, the musical equivalent of Yakov Smirnoff.
It’s an easy judgment to make, but to indulge in such cynicism would be to ignore both the intensity of the band’s stage show and front man Eugine Hutz’s obvious passion for music and performance, which shines through in every interview I’ve ever seen him do (including this TMT interview from 2008). It’s that passion that lends significance to even the band’s silliest and most cartoonish moments. And although Trans-Continental Hustle is a flawed album in many ways, the passion of Hutz and his merry band of pranksters remains a saving grace throughout.
Trans-Continental Hustle is a big step for the band: their first record for their new label and their first time working with über-producer Rick Ruben. Ruben is well-known for his career-making (and career-reviving) turns behind the boards, but here I’m not sure he’s done the band a service. Gogol Bordello is first and foremost a live band, so their music works best when it sounds like it’s being played in a live setting. Steve Albini and Jim Sclavunos had the right idea; the rawer, more bare-bones quality of their albums made a better conduit for this band’s unique energy.
Thankfully, the energy itself has not dissipated. Hutz is captivating as ever; he consistently keeps even the more lackluster moments afloat with the sheer force of his exuberance. The absolute apogee occurs in “In the Meantime in Pernambuco,” when, in his second iteration of the refrain “Expect nothing more or less than critical conditions,” the words dissolve into gibberish. The music is as eclectic as fans have come to expect. The backbone of Eastern European folk is reinforced with a healthy dose of Tarantella left over from 2007’s Super Taranta!, along with some occasional flamenco, inspired by Hutz’s latest adopted home, Brazil. Strange as it may sound, however, the musical touch point that jumps out at me most often is actually disco. Particularly in the songs “My Companjera” and “Rebellious Love,” the prominent dance beat melded with the electric violin creates a very 70s club vibe.
The party-like atmosphere, however, is often undercut by lyrics that reach with too heavy a hand toward the sublime. High-minded, new-agey references to “spirit guides” and “raising the knowledge” are a poor substitute for the goofy sleaze that informed early Gogol Bordello classics like “Sex Spider” and “Think Locally, Fuck Globally.” Hutz indulges too much in his role as outsider sage, even proclaiming during the title track, “In my headphones it’s Bob Marley and not Joe Strummer.” But all of his defiant pronouncements and lamenting cries for universal love buckle under too much self-seriousness. He seems to have forgotten that a message doesn’t need to be deep in order to be true, and that the raw carnality of a song like “American Wedding” conveys more joie de vivre than all the platitudes in the world.
Trans-Continental Hustle is an honest effort, but one that pales a little when compared to the Technicolor explosions of Gogol Bordello’s back catalog. Few of the songs really stand out, and some of the ones that do cross over that delicate border between “infectious song I can’t get out of my head” and “I’m going to take a power drill to my skull to make the music stop.” Longterm fans will surely find something to love on this release, but I’m not certain it will be an ideal entry-point for the broader audience that American Recordings is counting on the band to rake in.