Album Review: DeVotchKa ‘100 Lovers’

DeVotchKa’s main claim to fame is twofold: Win Butler is a big fan of their music, and they did ‘that song from that ad‘. During their career spanning six albums, a handful of EPs, and one movie soundtrack, DeVotchKa’s music has been described as everything from ‘gypsy punk’ to the bewildering ‘Muse meets Gogol Bordello’ (thanks, Triple J). As difficult as their music is to categorise, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that this Colorado band is something pretty special.

Their latest album, ‘100 Lovers’, only further asserts this fact, and is perhaps their most confident and cohesive outing since the critically acclaimed ‘How It Ends’ album of 2004.

The origin of DeVotchKa is so fascinating and unlikely that it demands a quick mention. The band consists of a professional classical violinist, a gypsy multi-instrumentalist, a former member of a Civil War re-enactment band, and a punk-enthusiast drummer raised by polka musicians. They started as a band by playing burlesque shows, but quickly graduated to indie mini-stardom and eventually to mainstream success.

Given the diverse nature of DeVotchKa’s band members, it comes as no surprise that their music is a fierce blend of a huge range of genres and influences including Mariachi and Slavic music, as well as more modern leanings such as punk and folk. The attraction of DeVotchka as a band is that they blend these styles of music flawlessly, creating sweeping and at times unmistakably epic music that is nevertheless very accessible.

And so we come, finally, to ‘100 Lovers’, which is an album of two halves. The first leans towards a much more Western style of music, featuring plenty of driving acoustic guitars and clearcut vocals, much more so than any of DeVotchKa’s previous music (apart from the single How It Ends). The second half by comparison is much easier to associate with the band’s prior work, with a much greater emphasis on brass instruments and gypsy rhythms.

As a big fan of DeVotchKa’s earlier music, it is surprising that it is the first half of ‘100 Lovers’ that I like the most. The band are deceptively well suited to the more straight-up indie rock approach demonstrated here, and while typical DeVotchKa flourishes of unusual instruments and arrangements are still plentiful, there can be no mistaking that some of the complexity that defined their earlier music is- if not completely gone- then partially obscured.

Opening track The Alley ushers in the record with a cacophony of violins which break away to reveal lead singer Nick Urata’s signature velvety smooth vocals. While all the singing on ‘100 Lovers’ is done in English, you are not meant to recognise every word instantaneously (and nor will you), and the lyrics certainly take a backseat compared to the instrumentation.

The album as a whole is stolen by the second track, All The Sand In All The Sea, which is both my favourite DeVotchKa song to date and my favourite song of the year so far. It is a frantic, wonderful ride of a song that fuses jazzy elements with a brutal drumbeat and powerful violins. “Here’s the part that always gets me,” swoons Nick Urata in the lead up to the majestic instrumental climax of the song, and he’s not wrong.

Meanwhile the title track, 100 Lovers, demonstrates the band’s more chilled out side, before The Common Good seems to hint towards their gypsy origins and European influences before breaking into a bit of an indie rock ballad, albeit one constantly underpinned by violins. The Man From San Sebastian is somewhat of a bridging song, heralding the end to the first half of the album and hinting at the more diverse and complicated music that is to come.

Whilst the second half of ‘100 Lovers’ is far from forgettable, it just doesn’t grab me quite as much as the first. Exhaustible is a standout track however, with an absurdly catchy whistling solo that will inevitably have you whistling along with the recording. Bad Luck Heels is gypsy as, and Contraband features the most prominent use of horns in the album, before the very complex and challenging Sunshine wraps up the album with something somewhere between a bang and a whimper.

And there you have it. Throughout the whole album there is an inescapable sense that what you are listening to is something very cinematic. The band seem to recognise this as well, with the inclusion of two short and wholly unnecessary ‘Interlude‘ songs. They are completely redundant and entirely forgettable, and make it seem as if the band are trying to make the record appear as cinematic and epic when in reality they would be better served by simply letting their music do the talking.

The defining feature of ‘100 Lovers’ is the individual character and charisma of each song. I usually try to avoid doing track-by-track album reviews, but I felt it was kind of inevitable for this record. Each song is so set apart from the rest and so immediately identifiable in its own right that I honestly believe pretty much everyone will be able to find something they love here. And if, like me, you enjoy all sides of DeVotchKa’s music, then you are in for a real treat.

There’s something about this music that draws you in; there is an inescapable charm to ‘100 Lovers’.

Whilst it defies genres just as much as anything else the band has done, longtime fans may struggle to come to terms with the slightly more straightforward first half of the album. Even if this is the case however, the second half offers plenty of more typical DeVotchKa sounding tracks, to the point where this record adequately serves multiple purposes: it is both a great indicator of where the band have come from, a good starting place for a new fan, and a sign of what may be to come from the band.

No matter what perspective you have when going into ‘100 Lovers’, there will be something here for you.

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