Hidden somewhere in the wind-chime swirl of a Gypsy's skirt, the wide, sequined brim of a mariachi's hat or the red-lined lips of a Argentine tango dancer, you'll find the essence of Devotchka's music. Over the last 14 years, the Denver, Colo.-based quartet has cultivated a sound that blends the moody, misty, Old World--accordion, violin, bouzouki--with the quick-step urgency of the New World--trumpet, sousaphone, guitar. And wandering the cobblestone streets of the band's sweeping, cinematic instrumentation are frontman Nick Urata's bellowing vocals and haunting, heartbreaking lyrics.
"It just seems like either, 'Why am I here?' or 'Why don't you love me?' Those are the two themes I keep going back to ... I think that's almost why music was invented," said Urata. "I know it can be a very, very powerful political tool, and I think that I go there sometimes ... I guess it's just the stuff that gets to me, gets me out of bed in the morning."
Devotchka's fifth studio album, 100 Lovers (Anti), is perhaps the band's most readily romantic and instantly accessible. From the first airy violin notes of "The Alley" to the irresistibly poppy piano of "100 Other Lovers" to the horn-blasting jangle of "Bad Luck Heels," the record manages to be complex without ever becoming chaotic. Urata credits producer/engineer Craig Schumacher with helping the band to scrap any unnecessary, meandering embellishments during the recording process.
"We took a lot of indulgences on [100 Lovers] and I thought maybe we'd gone too far on some of it," said Urata. "We wanted people to enjoy it. We weren't trying to make a commercial album by any means, but we just wanted people to enjoy the songs and not be put off by some self-indulgent, 12-minute viola flourish."
But that's not to say Devotchka devotees won't find all of the culture-coalescing, world-music garnishes they've come to love from classics like A Mad & Faithful Telling (2008) and How It Ends (2004). In addition to a pervasive Latin flavor--maracas, Spanish guitar, horns--100 Lovers also showcases Tom Hagerman's signature Slavic accordion on tracks like "Ruthless" and "Contrabanda." For Urata, exploring world-music traditions and folk instrumentation has been an integral part of his continued search for musical authenticity.
"I think any element of tradition is kind of attractive. I feel like the last couple of generations, we lost our sense of traditional expression. It seems like we just abandoned our past. I think we're just left kind of pining away for any sort of place to fit in," said Urata. "I found that early on, maybe I was hiding behind electronic effects and something like that. If you can make it sound good with a piece of wood and some wire, I think that's the best way to start out.
"That's what always drew me to mariachis and the Gypsies," Urata continued. "They'll be standing in the street with no microphones, and you can hear them three blocks away. And it's beautiful and compelling and soul-stirring."
Devotchka's eclectic, imagery-evoking sound has naturally found a home on the big screen. The band has licensed a number of songs for commercials--"How it Ends" was used in both a Gerber spot featuring women in labor and a commercial for the video game Gears of War--and scored the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film Little Miss Sunshine. Urata also independently scored 2009's I Love You Phillip Morris. In Urata's eyes, licensing music for movies and commercials is one of the few viable ways left to make a living in today's music industry.
"It could be interpreted as selling out, but how can you sell out in a day and age when nobody buys your music anymore? People don't understand why that might have an adverse effect," said Urata.
But the band does have standards. They shot down a commercial for the McDonald's McRib sandwich, for example.
"We've been approached by some people that I couldn't sleep with. You do have to show some moral fortitude, but I don't think there's much harm in it. And commercials have gotten a whole lot better, they actually have Academy Award-winning directors making commercials," said Urata. "But I have to say, I wish it wasn't that way."
On Wednesday, March 2, the day after 100 Lovers officially drops, Devotchka will roll into town for a video-art and acrobatics-filled live show at the Knitting Factory. It isn't the band's first trip to the Treasure Valley. According to Urata, Boise is the backdrop to one of his proudest professional moments--the day he found out Devotchka was nominated for a Grammy for Little Miss Sunshine.
"It was one of those not-so-glamorous times ... it was early in the morning and nothing was open, and I was just wandering around the streets of Boise--which as you know, can be kind of desolate--feeling kind of lonely and cold and 'what the hell am I doing with my life?' And then I got that phone call," said Urata. "It was a nice juxtaposition. And it certainly always endeared Boise to me."