Album Review: Devotchka - 100 Lovers

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Devotchka - 100 Lovers
Devotchka - 100 Lovers (Album Art)

The cover for DeVotchKa's newest album, 100 Lovers, depicts drummer Shawn King gliding over the desert, buoyed by two umbrellas. It's an image that is whimsical, evocative--and obviously staged. It stands as a fitting metaphor for DeVotchKa's trademark sonic blend: a swirl of influences from Europe, Mexico, and the American folk tradition, all served up by an unassuming quartet from the unassuming city of Denver.

DeVotchKa's music is part of a trend that includes artists like Andrew Bird, Beirut, Calexico and Gogol Bordello, seemingly sprung from an alternate reality in which the British Invasion never reached American shores and yet the alternative movement flourished anyway. Their sound is rich with horns, violins, accordions, flamenco guitars, and other assorted bits of instrumentation that waft in and out of various songs. One of their most famous songs, "Till the End of Time," capitalized on the whistling trend of the mid-2000s and was featured prominently in the film Little Miss Sunshine; the film helped the band reach greater prominence and allow them to transition to the acclaimed ANTI- label.

100 Lovers could be divided into three "movements". The first four songs drift through various hopes and insecurities of what might either be a burgeoning or fading love affair. A brief instrumental interlude follows, giving way to a pair of up-tempo tracks, eventually closing with another batch of torch songs. While the middle "movement" is the briefest, it is also the most compelling. The propulsive, jagged guitar lines of "The Man from San Sebastian" recall Joy Division, of all bands. Aided by the guitars and equally nervy accordions, the song exudes mystery and a hint of danger. "Exhaustible" has an almost Beatle-esque chord progression, augmented by a children's choir. Lest we not recognize that we're listening to a children's choir, once the song ends, we hear the kids burst into laughter during the fade. It seems like every band utilizes this little trick with choirs, and it's dangerously close to becoming a cliche.

I was a little surprised that a band this entrenched in their own distinctive sound could even approach the realm of cliche, largely in the relatively underwhelming final third of the record. At various times, the album sounds like the Magnetic Fields' "World Love," which deliberately aimed to parody (albeit affectionately) those modern rock musicians who attempted to emulate multiculturalism by grafting on various "world music" affectations. The half-baked Spanglish of "Ruthless" seems particularly dispiriting coming from a band that has seamlessly incorporated Mexican influences before. "Contrabanda" aims to juxtapose a volatile relationship with the volatile controversy surrounding the U.S./Mexico border, but winds up petering out before any conclusions can be reached. DeVotchKa's sound has become a signature sound over the past decade, so it may well be that they are becoming bored with that sound themselves.

When we began playing the quasi-title track, "100 Other Lovers," it failed to register with me for the first 3-4 times. As I listened to the album, though, it began to take shape. The band reaches various peaks and valleys over four minutes, driven by a subtle, almost Krautrock-ish keyboard loop. My own experience with the title track will probably mirror the listening experience for many with the album: a slow-burning collection of songs that will appeal to anyone looking for something just a little bit different.