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Gogol Bordello - Gypsy Punks

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Artist: Gogol Bordello

Album: Gypsy Punks

Label: Side One Dummy

Review date: Sep. 27, 2005

In the mid-1980s, two artists on the outskirts of pop provided inspiration for a whole legion of subsequent bands. Tom Waits, melding Kurt Weill and Captain Beefheart with his beatnik persona, uncovered ways to make acoustic and undistorted instruments as abrasive as any other noisemakers. And Shane McGowan, a tagalong from the original London punk scene, showed that the sloppy passion of 1977 could revitalize Celtic folk.

In their wake, there has been a steady flow of folk-dash-punk approaches to various traditions. These almost never work. Part of the problem is that most folk genres are built on a path of apprenticeship and mastery. Instruments like the violin and accordion are resistant to amateurism. Also, many of these musical forms get their propulsion from the off beat, and reducing their lilt to a 4/4 backbeat is like dropping a cannonball on a soufflé. These artists also underestimate Waits and McGowan; as two of the most literary of lyricists, their writing consistently carries songs through cornball musical ideas.

So what to make of Gogol Bordello? If they were merely overblown, like the unlistenable Irish-punk of tour mates Flogging Molly, there wouldn't be much to say. But their chosen formula, Eastern European music dragged through Rock, occasionally works. Gypsy music has always adapted and invigorated local styles, and only stands a few steps removed from rock. It's in the Polka that fed Texas Swing, in Django Reinhardt's popularization of the electric guitar, and in the Yiddish theatre that lead to Tin Pan Alley. And all those streamed into Rock. Fifteen years ago, the Les Negress Vertes did a convincing job of playing "gypsy punk." So at least one band has been successful in this territory, which is more than can be said for ska-punk.

And Gogol Bordello has come up with some bright lyrics. Their last record included this on the jacket:

And in this kind of town / The music is just background for dining
And in this kind of town / The dining is just background for biting

But the second line didn't make it into the recorded version. Instead there are some grunts to make way for the next round of vamping. And therein lies Gogol Bordello's problem. There are hints that leader Eugene Hutz has some depth, but his Iggy-with-a-moustache posturing deflates the promise. On Gypsy Punks, "Think Globally, Fuck Locally" launches with strumming that recalls Elvis' eccentric guitar bashing at the start of "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Halfway through there's a great percussion break hammered out on a paint bucket. But between all that, there's yet another fiddle rave-up and variations on the moronic catchphrase of the title.

Hutz keeps declaring his credentials as a provocateur and a desperate immigrant; one is inclined to disbelieve him on both counts. The lyrics here talk repeatedly of what the band is (gypsies…who play punk!) and what sort of revolution it's gonna bring. They never get around to constructing a complete song; the musical juxtapositions are just as rhetorical. One could defend the Gogols as essentially a party band. But the grand proclamations and attempts at anthems deflate that theory. Hutz want to midwife some sort of mongrel genre, but can't get beyond his mission statement.

Their previous work was dragged down by glossy world music production. Here they get the Steve Albini treatment, and it's a step backwards. Everything is sharp and mechanical and precise. Once again, the sound doesn't match the earthy ambitions. Strangely, the most convincing parts are the reggae and dub excursions. They don't fit the agenda, and they certainly don't fit Albini's safety zone, and they're kinda cool in their ridiculousness. But then reggae is one of those traditions that hit the off beat, and the accordion is a good stand-in for Agustus Pablo's melodica.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a faker; certainly Waits and McGowan engage in a certain amount of fakery. The Gypsy cabarets that tour Slavic communities are series of schtick, just like old American vaudeville. Posing isn't the problem. I suspect the cabaret artists working under Sovietism slipped in coded political commentary in ways that were far more inspirational. I suspect that Hutz views himself as fitting into rock like Andre Codrescu fits into NPR; dropping exquisite corpses of East European fatalism on the nicey-nice world of whitebread multiculturalism. But he comes across more like one of the wild and crazy Czech buffoons of the old Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd routine. He's looking for a quick three-way with some fine looking musical styles. It's an offer easy to refuse.

By Ben Donnelly

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