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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Recording review - Gogol Bordello, Pura Vida Conspiracy (2013)

Expanding on their gypsy-punk traditions, keeping their eyes on the present

Gogol Bordello doesn't so much march to the beat of a different drummer as dance to the rhythm of a crazy-quilt amalgam of percussion traditions. Starting from founder Eugene Hütz's Gypsy-Ukrainian roots, they've incorporated the ska-tinted punk of The Clash along with elements of jazz and rock and roll. Over time, the band has defied assimilation by absorbing every shiny musical tradition that catches their ear. So far, the Gypsy character still dominates by virtue of Hütz's thick accent and the exotic siren sound of minor key melodies. Moving beyond their loud, thrashy beginnings, their more recent albums, like 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle, feature more studio polish as they evolve their sound. Pura Vida Conspiracy continues that direction, incorporating influences ranging from Latin rhythms to classic American country. Just as the Clash built on their punk foundation as they matured, Gogol Bordello holds on to their principles while following their muse.

Even as they reinvent their sound by adding new flavors, Gogol Bordello maintains the folk foundation of their music. But their take on folk music seems so much richer than the watered-down, museum quality of most American and British folk. In many ways, they’re quite reminiscent of the Pogues, although they have a stronger philosophical bent. Both bands have filled their albums with chaotic musical celebrations and each is centered on a charismatic front man, but the two leaders are very different. They share a poetic streak, but where Shane McGowan is often incoherent, Hütz is rough but articulate. Both men can be defiant and proud, but McGowan often taps into his anger where Hütz tends toward indignation at injustice.

As he plays the chameleon, taking turns as a firebrand, a lover and a rogue, Hütz’s personality dominates Gogol Bordello. Far from mellifluous, somehow his quavery voice, heavy accent and slurring pronunciation emphasize the earnestness of his lyrics. All the while, he and the band fit together like an old couple, intimately familiar with each others tendencies. As his singing pairs with a violin line, it’s impossible to tell which is leading.

Gogol Bordello has cited Parliament/Funkadelic as a key influence and their performances reflect that. In concert, they create a party on the stage, packed full of spectacle. Their albums move forward with a similar hyperactive energy. But more than mindless fun, these recordings give the band a soapbox. In the case of Pura Vida Conspiracy, Hütz articulated the idea behind the album during a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything): “Everybody is obsessed with living in a future, living in the past, and consequently the very life itself which is now is abandoned. Our music with its every note demands the attention to the present moment.” The band’s power lies in that engagement with the present. Against a sea of diffident, ironic hipster bands, their music simultaneously pulsates with life and makes them seem larger than life.

The band kicks off Pura Vida Conspiracy with a stirring anthem, “We Rise Again”, In what’s become a standard approach for the band, a chanted beginning sets up a strong minor key rocker. The verses are very idiosyncratic, avoiding structural repetition, so the two part chorus frames the tune with a handful of slogans. The first part couches its message of anarchy with slightly obscure metaphors, “Borders are scars on face of the planet/ So heal away, my alchemy man/ When even atheist holds up a candle/ We gotta rise again/ We rise again.” But the second half, “With a fistful of heart/ And a radical future/ Opa! We rise again,” delivers a crowd-friendly refrain. The frantic pace imbues the piece with a sense of urgency that persists into the solo where violin entwines with guitar in a moody folk melody.

Just as every Gogol Bordello album has its rambunctious moments, they like to balance it out with at least one jazzy interlude. Trans-Continental Hustle offered “Sun On My Side” and their latest has “I Just Realized”. The interlocking guitars at the beginning slip into a Latin rhythm and Hütz's voice is soft and husky, “Is it because I am Russian?/ Is it because you are not?” The beat sashays with Brazilian flair, but the accordion pulls the song into a smoky French cabaret. Following their usual playlist preference, it’s a nice palate cleanser before a heavier up-tempo track. In this case, the Romany party song, “Gypsy Auto Pilot”, serves that role. Looking back with no regrets, Hütz celebrates his life on the fringes, “To discover rules of life/ And how to break them well/ And a key to my Gypsy auto pilot/ And my story to tell.

Although much of Pura Vida Conspiracy does follow the pattern of their earlier albums, one surprising element is a new-found appreciation of country music. “Malandrino” blends country folk with a touch of conjunto and the country cut-time beat on “Lost Innocent World” finds common ground with Eastern European folk rhythms. The most direct example is the cowboy country of the final track, “We Shall Sail”. Accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, Hütz affects a western drawl that occasionally slips askew to reveal his normal accent. Except for a strange, chromatic turnaround, the arrangement respects the genre, injecting little Gypsy character. Instead the lyrics themselves form the bridge between lonesome cowboy philosophy and socially conscious rebels, “Nothing in this life is good or bad/ It’s we who dress it up as happy or sad.” As the last note fades into silence, it’s a good closer for the album. Of course, if you let the silence run out, eventually you get to the surprising hidden track, where the band proves they have not forgotten their punk roots.

Longtime fans may still miss the raw purity of Gogol Bordello’s breakout release, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (2005), but Pura Vida Conspiracy is a vibrant addition to their catalog.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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