Weird Enough to be Symbolic: The album 100 Lovers by DeVotchKa

By Daniel Garrett

DeVotchKa, 100 Lovers
Produced by Craig Schumacher
Anti, Inc./Epitaph, 2011

“From the beast she pulls a lover” is a line from a song, “The Alley,” suggesting the union of beauty and ugliness, of tenderness and rage, and the possibility of transformation, on the album 100 Lovers by DeVotchKa.  Tom Hagerman, Shawn King, Jeanie Schroder, and Nick Urata are the members of the musical group DeVotchKa, a rock band that creates a nearly orchestral sound with an oratorical voice to match, and while its songs may suggest the human relationships many people know, there is something inescapably different, and very strange, about that sound: classical and punk; European, American, and Latin; passionate and theatrical.

What is eccentric can be more than amusing—it can be a comfort to the eternal strangers in society.  I am not sure that some of us can be understood: I think that the experiences that have shaped our emotions and ego are such that explanations, no matter how complex and detailed, do not have the familiar—common, trivial, vulgar—aspect of truth for others.  Our real experience seems like dream, fantasy, nightmare; our ideas rationalization or rhetoric.  Be still, and think (clearly, honestly, logically, comparing yesterday to today, and keeping in mind history and literature)—and get accused of daydreaming.  Have the courage to say what you feel—and you are described as weak or whining.  Be seen alone—and the assumption is that you must want company, though you keep hoping that you will be let alone, that no one will insist on wasting your time with matters that do not concern you: you do not want to hear business chatter, gossip about private lives, racist paranoia, or anything about hip-hop, organized religion, or team sports.  Try to create something lasting of beauty, craft, passion, thought, and truth—and you are asked, Why are you so impractical, lazy, and selfish?  Is it possible to explain depths to those who only see surfaces?  Is it possible to convey the fact that life is hard for the few because of the very nature of the many?  Yet, there are some artists whose images and sounds are strange enough to present a semblance of the ordinary oddity of what experience might be for us (it is not exact reflection, but it is compelling allegory or metaphor).  The musical group DeVotchKa has produced music weird enough to have symbolic value; and that is clear from the first song (“The Alley”) on the album 100 Lovers to the last (“Sunshine”).

It is easy to be lost in the world and lost to it—brilliance and love can move one beyond easy paths, as can ignorance or hate, but art provides a map, a beacon.  It can be a shock to youth to realize that some people do not care if the maps exist—or worse, enjoy shooting out the lights.  It can be a shock to the old too.  Those who care about a certain kind of civilization must be vigilant.  DeVotchKa’s imagery is stark in “All the Sand in the Sea,” producing a chilling assessment of existence: “All your precious souls have been bought and sold, for bargain basement lows to common criminals.”  Nick Urata, who seems to be DeVotchKa’s principal singer and songwriter, plays guitar, piano, trumpet, and an old electronic instrument, the Theremin; Jeanie Schroder plays bass and sousaphone (a tuba); Shawn King drums and trumpet; and Tom Hagerman accordion, piano, viola and violin.  There is a fluttering rhythm and a whirl of noise in “All the Sand in the Sea,” and somehow the band DeVotchKa creates a romantic aura, even with the song being mostly about temptation and betrayal: “Are we wasting all our precious time, chasing dollars, chasing dimes?”  The possibility of a human connection remains redemptive (“We’ve been here before, a lover’s civil war.  I will wait religiously”).

Although the band DeVotchKa, which has been featured at festivals and in film, does not sound—to me—much like any other, I do hear a distant relation to This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance, and a nearer one to Calexico, Fishtank Ensemble, Gogol Bordello, and the exuberantly inventive Vagabond Swing.  Bouncy, fast, and cheerier than the lyrics, the song “100 Other Lovers” creates an atmosphere of sociability rather than intimacy: it is ironic contrast for a song with lyrics that indicate a certain amount of torment.  The singing voice is extravagant—wildly expressive—and the gypsy strings have a dense rhythm in “The Common Good,” and it is one of the songs that seem most to create an imaginative space—“We’re gonna give back what we steal.  Just say the word and I shall be healed”—rather than realistic or narrowly representational space.

Rowdy, shifting, uptempo is “The Man from San Sebastian,” which precedes the communal, parading “Exhaustible.”  The introduction of the largely mid-tempo “Bad Luck Heels” sounds like mariachi music; and the lyrics include the lines “I swear I’m a changed man” and “The land has no heart.”  The composition “Ruthless” is longer, more complicated, than the songs that come before it, and the pieces that follow (the forward-moving and lean “Contrabanda” and the instrumental “Sunshine,” with its circles and circles of sound).  DeVotchKa’s 100Lovers is a strange album—and some of us require strangeness.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  “Being an artist is not just a skill and a practice; it is a philosophy, a vision, a way of living,” says Garrett, who originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or