Remember the movie “Little Miss Sunshine”? It was that sweet indie comedy that worked its way into our hearts and wound up being quite successful at the box office. Hopefully being the astute music fans that you are, you took notice of the movie’s soundtrack, which heavily featured the music of DeVotchKa. Granted, much of the soundtrack was pulled from the band’s 2004 record “How It Ends”, but there were a couple of original pieces in there as well. It genuinely seemed like DeVotchKa’s music had the sweeping drama and epic beauty that works effortlessly and perfectly in movies. There would be advertising opportunities, video game soundtracks and a bunch of other things the band signed off on (as well as a bunch they turned down as well), and chances are even if you think you’ve never heard a DeVotchKa song before, you actually have in the background somewhere. All the commercial exposure really helped to build a following for this collection of troubadors, and it helped turn their last record, “A Mad & Faithful Telling” into a moderate hit. Nevermind that it was their weakest record to date. Their star still continues to rise, and their greatest accomplishment to date was an opening slot for Muse last summer when they played in front of over 80,000 people in France. Now DeVotchKa is back with “100 Lovers”, their first new record in three years, and yet again it falls right in line with the widescreen journey they’ve been on for quite awhile now.
Grand orchestral swells and piano introduce the record on “The Alley”, just before a martial snare drum beat picks up the pace and frontman Nick Urata belts out those first words in a croon that sounds like he’s trying to seduce an entire valley full of people from atop a mountain. It’s that sort of huge, and despite that, the band makes it seem almost effortless. The song itself pushes what eventually becomes a theme of the record and practically the norm for DeVotchKa these days, in that their focus is more on beauty and atmosphere than it is on creative, world accented pop. A song like “All the Sand in All the Seas” sounds positively lovely and moves at a brisk pace, but the closest it comes to a hook is some bouncy piano that acts more as a guide linking the verses than anything else. Similarly, “One Hundred Other Lovers” is remarkably reminiscent of the gorgeous balladry that the song “How It Ends” had going for it, which in turn also makes it one of the record’s strongest bits. Immense orchestration and an out of control violin are what form the basis for “The Common Good”, and what’s normally lovely sounds overly busy in this particular case. There’s simply too much going on in the song for it for the richness to sink in. The final minute of the song completely gives way to an even greater instrumental swell that takes things even farther off the rails into almost white noise territory. There’s certainly a passion there, not to mention ferocity, but it doesn’t feel earned.
After the first of two interludes, “The Man From San Sebastian” foregoes the orchestral majesty of the first half and breaks out the accordion and electric guitars. It’s a rock track with a touch of Spanish influence as the title suggests, along with a bit of Eastern European gypsy mojo. Acoustic guitars, tambourines and whistling helps bring the jingle-jangle to “Exhaustible”, a track that’s well put together but feels a lot like its title, which makes it just a little off from the band’s norm. After a second very brief instrumental interlude, Spanish influences take over the band, from the fiery horns and bongos of “Bad Luck Heels” and “Contrabanda” to the peppered accordion and multilingual lyrics of “Ruthless”, there are moments in the final third of the record that genuinely feel like DeVotchKa have gone mariachi. If you’re familiar with the band’s past records though, this is nothing particularly new. Of course they’re far more complicated and well developed than that, but it does give you the impression that the record has those couple interludes to neatly divide it into sections where different musical styles and influences are explored. Closing track “Sunshine” bucks the Spanish final third just a bit with its jack-of-all-trades instrumental. It’s a pretty beautiful song, but doesn’t feel like it has a distinct purpose. There’s not a whole lot to keep it interesting, though it still chugs along for close to 5 minutes seeking some semblance of structure.
Credit goes to DeVotchKa for at the very least providing some framework for “100 Lovers” by grouping similar songs together to create a solidified mood and atmosphere. That’s pretty much what they do best anyways, though the first half of the album places a lot more emphasis on that than the second half does. All the sweeping drama from those first few songs will surely bring to mind Arcade Fire at least a touch, especially since Nick Urata’s vocals have that emotive Win Butler-like wail that tends to be too charming to resist. Compared to past DeVotchKa records, this one’s just a bit easier on the ears stylistically, with the band restraining some of their more ethnic impulses in favor of more straightforward arrangements. That turns out to be both a help and a hindrance, partly because you get the impression that had they gone all the way either in a smooth orchestral pop direction or in an offbeat, world music sort of left turn, it would have made for a better record. Instead, most of the songs are lovely and have their own distinct charms, even if it may feel a little uneven between the various parts. It’s also just a little bit of an issue that for DeVotchKa, there’s not a whole lot of forward movement on “100 Lovers”. Everything they do here they’ve pretty much done before, sometimes with more vigor and inspiration. Still, the band has reached a comfortable spot in their career where maybe they don’t need to keep pushing the envelope and they can simply settle in to being labeled as world-weary travelers. It’d kinda be nice if that weren’t the case though, and they still had a few more tricks up their sleeves.