(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, May 18, 2009

CD Review - Gogol Bordello, Gypsy Punks


It's so easy today to get all the music you can listen to without leaving your safe cocoon. The iTunes store (or Amazon, et al.) will recommend music to you based on what you've bought. It's easy. It's safe. It's too damn safe.

I'll keep the old fart muttering to a minimum, but "in my day, we had record stores and you went there looking for music and who knows what you'd find." Last year, I was wandering through the local CD/head shop looking for a gift, maybe a nice set of earrings. As I was looking through the display cases, suddenly something sunk in. What was this music?? I was transfixed. It was totally unique: eastern European folk instrumentation (nylon string guitars, accordions, etc), Gypsy minor scales and harmonies, driven to a frenzy by a thumping bass and punk beat, elements of ska and dub style music, all of it wrapped up with the voice. It was a crazy voice. The kind of voice that gets you in trouble, that screams at you when you don't listen closely enough, that comforts you when it all falls apart. Eugene Hutz's thick Ukrainian accent is a constant presence in this music. I never found the right gift, but I bought Gogol Bordello's Gypsy Punks and immersed myself.

At some level, the whole album is a quasi-political assertion that we must fight the power in the finest Gypsy tradition. In an alienating society, anyone with a soul is an outsider, which effectively makes them fellow gypsies. Don't worry about it getting too heavy or preachy because one thing is certain with this Gypsy mindset: life is celebration, too, and there's always an excuse to dance.

There are so many great songs on this disc. The first song, Sally, drives a Clash guitar chank and violin/accordion riff trading. No one is safe from the Gypsy infection (cultural revolution), least of all poor Sally from Nebraska. This is a theme that continues through the album.

"In the old time, it was not a crime". Not much in the way of lyrics here, but I don't care because it's so much fun. Not a Crime starts with a piece of foreign language dialog, but this jumps quickly into a driving jam. The gypsy minor scales scream by with a rocking rhythm. There are elements of rapping and Jamaican toasting, but it's a psychedelic mix of noise and repetition that's hypnotic. There's a trippy dub section that I can only imagine hearing live at a show. The closest comparison I can make with this music is with some of Camper Van Beethoven's folk psychedelia.

A coherent philosophy emerges through the progression of the songs. In Oh No, they sing about the rejection of capitalism and our innate ability to create art and joy outside the "system". Underground World Strike asserts that all of the interesting cultural stuff comes from the underclasses, which is all connected "through the Gypsy part of town." In Illumination, they push self-reliance and valuing ourselves over crass society:
But we who see our destiny
In sound of this same old punk song
Let rest originality for sake of passing it around
Illuminating realization number one:
You are the only light there is
For yourself my friend
You are the only light there is
For yourself my friend

The music is constantly interesting. The groove occasionally drifts into a stereotypical "Gypsy" feel, with the violin, accordion, and acoustic guitar, but there's always a twist. It may come from a touch of ska, dub, or toasting. It may be a hard rock, distorted guitar, low tech punk arrangement. Or maybe all of these together.

Toss back some Sambuca and start dancing. It's going to be a long night.

As a bit of a postscript, I've also got their next album, Super Taranta! It's a good album, with more focus on the gypsy groove and a little less punk. Still, the songs are strong (Supertheory of Supereverything and Dub the Frequencies of Love are personal faves).

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