Brave New World

DeVotchKa's cultural collisions make for fascinating art

Yet the soundwall that DeVotchKa constructs is derived not from a heavy-handed tendency to simply crank up the volume control on the ol' Stratocaster or the amp, but from a sheer mass of instrumentation and force of talent. The music that DeVotchKa creates is not to be attempted by the meek; in lesser hands, such an amalgamation of ethnic styles could easily be reduced to sonic mud. In DeVotchKa's, it is an experiment that works. In addition to Urata and Ellison (known to DeVotchKa watchers as "Sweet Jonny V"), the band includes drummer Sean King, percussionist David Rastetter (who plays an originally designed drum kit to accommodate his penchants for everything from Afro-Cuban to rockabilly), Jeanie Schroeder, and cellist Paul Fonfara and violinist Tom Hagerman, both classically strained string players.

Add to this Ellison's accordion, Urata's trumpet, occasional theremin solos and choruses where whistling is as prevalent in the mix as the mighty string section, and you have a sound that is odd without being isolative or pretentious, worldly without being traditionalist, joyful with moments of devastation, both lyrical and musical. ("Danglin' Feet," for example, manages to mate a cheerful Americana country aesthetic with a fragile violin and a chorus about a woman discovering her lover hanged.)

Urata, who pens the lyrics for the band, has also been known to slip in and out of Italian and Spanish, to achieve both a cosmopolitan effect and exploit artistic license. ("I try to check my grammar before I do that stuff," he says. "Sometimes I think it's good that they can't understand what I'm saying.") When he does sing in English, which is usually, Urata's theatrical delivery and the band's experiments with amplification provide a stunning framework for his lyrics. They are often cinematic, sometimes funny -- images that at times elevate DeVotchKa's sound to the almost operatic.

DeVotchKa was inspired by the cultural melting pot of 
Chicago's Cicero Avenue.
DeVotchKa was inspired by the cultural melting pot of Chicago's Cicero Avenue.
DeVotchKa: Describing the band's sound involves a 
lot of hyphens.
DeVotchKa: Describing the band's sound involves a lot of hyphens.

"Sunrise on Cicero," for example, finds him having a disjointed, imaginary conversation with a friend or lover for whom he seems willing to die. And with its Italian-language interludes, "Head Honcho," is a spellbinding, lovelorn plea for mercy: "It's love that I'm dying of/It's a truth that will break your heart in two/Has it always sounded like this?/My name upon your lips?" This is the stuff of Technicolor romances, swoony fare that would make Valentino proud, even if the music made him dizzy. Elsewhere, as on "Gasoline Serpent," a breezy, poppy melody is countered by a cityscape narrative full of gutters, blood and religious imagery: "This town is a garbage pile/If it takes us down, we'll go out in style/She swears she's seen God and we're all forsaken/Hide the guitars, man, there's windows breakin'."

"I try to get back to experiences and feelings, and it's really a battle not to be self-conscious," says Urata, who stops far short of calling himself a poet but cites a history of writing verse for both the page and performance. "A lot of what I write are mirror images of things I've seen, or they're fictional. It may sound corny, but it's really just all about baring your heart. I think that we all try to do that -- we just put it all out there."

Playing the front man role and baring his soul to audiences of strangers is a position the slightly shy, slightly quiet Urata only seems comfortable with when he's actually onstage. Wary of self-promotion, he mentions almost apologetically the band's Web site (www.devotchka.net), as well as little facts about the collective's successes. Among them, that the band was one of a handful of unknowns that played the '99 College Music Journal Festival in New York City after the festival director, blown away by a DeVotchKa demo tape the band sent in on a lark, called in a personal invitation. The band was invited again in 2000, an offer it politely refused. ("It's really not worth it," Urata says. "We played the same night as June Carter Cash. I mean, how can you compete with that?") The band has also been well-received on its regional jaunts, earning props from press along the way, including the Chicago Sun-Times, which praised the band's "wonderfully weird set of great songs."

Though the Times was referring to a DeVotchKa live show, it could have been writing about Super melodrama, the band's first full-length released last year. A 13-song CD recorded in various locations -- including Urata's basement -- Super melodrama was mixed by noted Mile High City-based sound guru Bob Ferbrache (Built to Spill, Bush). Blissfully produced, the album proves Urata and Ellison have come a long way from the subway days, and that sometimes a crazy musical notion -- to marry Eastern European styles with redneck rockabilly, for example -- can still somehow sound subtle, can be at once clean, delicate and larger than life.

Urata and his mates should probably get used to people saying nice things about them. Perhaps sensing the comic potential of such an exercise, or simply hoping to find a catch phrase for some promotional material, employees at Denver's Fox Theatre recently queried members of the establishment's extensive e-mailing list as to how a person might describe DeVotchKa. Response attempts invariably included lots of hyphens ("Hillbilly-mariachi-polka," for example), but simplicity seemed to sum it up best: "DeVotchKa," another response reads. "Da Shit."

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