DeVotchKa 100 Lovers

[ANTI-; 2011]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: world-folk, gypsy-folk, musical tourism, cabaret
Others: Beirut, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Gogol Bordello, Muse

It’s awfully unsporting to judge a band by the quality of its typography, but here I go. Nobody expects an album cover from a raggedy world-folk-inflected indie group to rival the impeccable design of Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch Maschine, but even in a homogenizing age of jpegs and ID3 tags, font conveys tone and credibility. Say you pull into an anonymous strip mall after a long day of interstate driving and the only place open for dinner’s a decrepit Italian joint with carpet dating back to the Nixon era and sauce that looks more like chum than anything tomato-based. Wouldn’t you be slightly less concerned about food poisoning if the menus were set in Garamond instead of Comic Sans?

The soft-edged, spawn-of-the-90s faux-typewriter lettering on the face of the new DeVotchKa record, 100 Lovers, feels pretty suspect; the reversed “K” even more so. Taken as a whole, the image — a sepia Photoshop job of a gent lifted off the ground by twin umbrellas in front of hills and snowy peaks — looks like something you’d be more likely to find on a Myspace profile circa 2006 than in the depths of a deceased great-uncle’s travel-beaten chest. This’d all be inconsequential were the cover not so indicative of the gawky overstatements and tonal miscalculations within.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the band’s Grand Tour appropriation of regional musics. Zach Condon has made his name covering similar ground, albeit with narrower focus and aided by his naturally magnetic presence and voice (and babyface). It’s just that DeVotchKa seem intent on swallowing up the whole world on every record, providing not unified artistic statements but salmagundis, a tendency that leaves even their best work, like 2004’s How It Ends, feeling ungrounded. The gulfs in quality that crop up between songs like the elegiac, snare-rolling title track from that album and their pastiest pastiches wreak havoc on tone and erase any possibility of a broader narrative.

100 Lovers attempts to rectify this last issue via a three-act structure, partitioned by interludes. Act One rounds up the four heavily-orchestrated, more distinctly European tracks on the album, which, taken individually, hit all the right buttons in the right order but together accumulate a gluttonous richness. “The Alley” could be the opening to a far superior album, all thudding toms and sun-bleached sonic textures across crane-shot strings. Act Two contains a pair of less easily categorized tracks: the inane, slightly Britpop-sounding whistle-along “Exhaustible” and the blaring earsore of an Astor Piazzolla homage that is “The Man from San Sebastian.” Act Three trots out the Tijuana Brass and then makes an ill-considered venture into the South.

This framework befits the obvious dramatic strain that runs throughout the band’s oeuvre, possibly springing from their early days in the world of burlesque. However, there’s an uncomfortable tension at work between their Weillian histrionics and front man Nick Urata’s more self-serious emoting, especially when he dons accents to fit his appropriations — his egregious Hispano patois on “Ruthless” and “Contrabanda” falls somewhere between musical theater and minstrelsy. His voice, which has settled from a warblier Win Butler to more of a Stuart A. Staples of Tindersticks sort of bellow, seems incapable of the levity required to sell his more outlandish excursions.

It’s appropriate that DeVotchKa played their biggest crowd to date opening for Muse in France this past summer, as both bands possess a plain technical proficiency that makes their tendency toward stagy bombast all the more frustrating. 100 Lovers baffles with the breadth of its misfires; from sequencing to packaging design to instrumentation, this is a band taking bold steps in the wrong direction.

Links: DeVotchKa - ANTI-

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