Devotchka have been producing their distinctive take on ‘Gypsy cabaret’ since 2000, releasing 6 albums. With their contribution to the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack 2006 in they were exposed to a much wider audience and bringing them wide acclaim
Their latest album, A Mad and Faithful Telling is a little more French and Mexican cabaret than gypsy and highlights the ongoing revitalisation of roots based pop in the States.
I asked frontman Nick Urata how they came up with their particular groove. “We always aspired to make music that we wanted to hear but couldn’t find. Nowadays everything is a click away, it wasn’t always like that, I always wanted our albums to be like mixed tapes, so you wouldn’t get bored.” How true this is to Devotchka’s albums, from one track to the next you are in a French salon then kicking it up at a Balkan wedding then weeping to an indie style ballad.
As far as the eastern European sound that certainly reemerges regularly throughout this and their previous work, Urata puts it down to his childhood. “When I was a boy my grandparents planted the seed that I was a gypsy, so anytime I hear a violin I weep instantly.” This emotional connection with Europe in the heart of many Americans may seem obvious, but there seems to be a stronger global musical connection within American pop in the last decade. “In America our parents got here and had to assimilate, shed their heritage as quickly as possible and dive into the melting pot. Now you have a whole homogenized generation with no tradition who are pining away for their roots, we are drawn to it much in the same way the rest of the world is drawn to hip hop and rock and roll.” This long lost culture is but a click away or hop skip and jump on a discounted airline and seems to be bubbling into much of popular culture.
Though direct experience of European musical culture through travel and playing various festivals there over the years has played a role, Urata admitted, the further away from the West he has travelled the more likely he was to hear the worst of Amercian pop culture, “I’ve seen great music in Budapest, Paris, and New York, but it seems like the more exotic the locale the more I hear American classic rock and R&B, its a little depressing. The first time I made it to Hungary I came upon this ancient little stonewall cabaret and I thought “this is it, I’ve found it I will hear the music of my dreams’, and what were they playing? ‘Private dancer’ by Tina Turner.
Devotchka’s cabaret background, rather than being their backbone, is a silky torn vintage shirt the band chooses to wear or not wear, depending on its mood. Their earlier days (or nights, rather) were filled with providing live soundtracks to exotic cabaret shows in the States including touring with fetish model Dita von Teese. “In those shows we had to look good and sound exotic or we would have been burned at the stake. The audience was there to lose themselves and to see beautiful girls take off their vintage clothes, so we really had to have our shit together. There was no room to be the slacker sloppy, bar band, so it really forced us to a different level.” Coming from this particular underground movement (now not so underground) which embraces aesthetics and romanitises the past in its attempt to replace the cultural void found in modern pop culture, inadvertently kicked this band into shape.
Whatever their origins and influences Devotchka amalgamates and adopts from no single tradition, but many, building a distinctive blend that goes beyond global fusion because it is in many ways quite subtle. Urata’s pained, often unintelligable vocals, whether in Spanish or English often communicate a sort of desperation but of what it is not quite clear. The instrumentation of the band is impressive with just 4 members covering 11 instruments including Urata on vocals, guitars, piano, trumpet, theremin, bouzouki, Tom Hagerman on violin, accordion, piano, Jeanie Schroder on sousaphone, double bass, vocals and Shawn King on drums, percussion, trumpet, accordion, organ.
A Mad and Faithful Telling delivers their usual blend in a more balanced production, but I prefer Una Volta (2003)and How it Ends (2004), for example. Though Mad and Faithful is a great album it doesn’t grab me in the same way as their previous work, with the exception of the knees up track ‘Basso Profundo’. Where the musicality has picked up and been refined the song writing itself, in my opinion, has weakened. Having said that this latest release is worth listening to, but if you are unfamiliar with Devotchka I suggest first grabbing some of their earlier work.