Gypsy Is His Autopilot

I hate nostalgia so much that my favorite quatrain of the century goes, "There were never any good old days / They are today, they are tomorrow / It's a stupid thing we say / Cursing tomorrow with sorrow." Gargled out in a harsh Eastern European accent, kicked off with and topped off by a half-articulated shout and a sawing, guitar-fortified violin hook, the song is "Ultimate," which leads Gogol Bordello's fourth and greatest album, 2007's Super Taranta! It also led their sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg concert July 23rd, the day they released their pretty damn fine sixth album, Pura Vida Conspiracy. My wife and I hadn't seen the band for five years, and it did our hearts good to hear Eugene Hutz give pride of place to an old credo reaffirmed. At the top of the bleachers we bopped and hugged. Nostalgic? Nous?

Not counting my beloved Wussy, who I'll leave out of this, Gogol Bordello are my favorite rock band of the new century. By way of clarifying comparison, I'd say their chief competitors, all of whom I've celebrated in this space, are the Drive-By Truckers, Vampire Weekend, and the Hold Steady. Like Gogol, all three do something many of their youngish co-culturalists do not, from Foo Fighters on the rawk side to Grizzly Bear on the prawg side -- write songs whose lyrics and melodies both please and parse. Partly as a consequence, all have enjoyed commercial success as this era defines it, and as many tomorrows will too: they make a decent living creating and playing music, but only because they've learned to tolerate and even enjoy touring for multiple months every year.

Yet here's the thing -- while the other three bands are fairly familiar, I suspect few readers can place Gogol Bordello. That's because the NYC-spawned aggregation isn't especially big in the U.S. Its success is a worldwide phenomenon of the "secondary markets" more commonly serviced by acts whose name recognition is based on hits long gone. (Ever hear of British Goth-poppers Placebo? In Croatia they remember.) For Gogol Bordello, the logic is different. Whether their rhythms cant Balkan or Latin or Jamaican, and by now it's all three, they always generate a crude, loud, rock-identified drive. And rock they are -- Hutz plays guitar, as does Oliver Charles full-time and utility man Pedro Erazo-Segovia when the occasion arises. Yet at the same time they're an immigrant band. The 40-year-old Hutz grew up in Ukraine until Chernobyl set his family scurrying to Vermont, and energetically explores and exploits the Gypsy roots of his Roma grandmother. Violinist Sergey Ryabtsev is Russian, accordionist Pasha Newmer Belarusian, bassist Thomas Gobena Ethiopian, vocalist-percussionist Elizabeth Sun Scottish-born Hong Kong Chinese, multitasking Erazo-Segovia Ecuadoran. And their music affirms their mongrel heritage. On their excellent 2005 Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, Hutz expostulates in his thick accent about getting "categorized" and "naturalized," "pencilled in as a goddam white," but enjoys the last laugh with his fellow "immigrant punks": "I gotta friends, we gotta band / We still make sound you can't stand."

And for more youngish Americans than you'd hope or figure, that's true. Alt-rockers who pride themselves on their openness, critics among them, hear this sound and can't get over how Other it is. Instead of digesting the band's substance, they categorize influences they don't have it in them to naturalize. So let it be said that Gogol Bordello are not "world music" as that unfortunate term is understood by Weavers fans manqué. It doesn't evince an organic culture that's in the groove and at home with itself. Instead Gogol Bordello are aggressively rootless, forcing the groove and at home with that. Although it's been a while since the band incorporated the Gypsy brass of saxophonist Ori Kaplan (in point of fact an Israeli who since 2005 has put in his lot with NYC's Balkan Beat Box), their rock is hectic like the dueling horns of Romania's Fanfare Ciocarlia or the fiercer Punjabi bhangra tracks Hutz used to mix into his DJ sets when he resided nominally in New York City. They're aggressive, and that's a little scary for those not prepared for it.

Hutz too can be a little scary. A skinny guy with good abs and a vocabulary larger than his gutturals suggest, he's so hyperactive you're afraid he'll go into cardiac arrest next minute. Hutz stated his credo on Gogol Bordello's 2002 -- note highly un-guttural yet also not quite fluent title -- Multi Kontra Culti Vs. Irony. "When the Trickster Starts A-Poking (Bordello Kind of Guy)" invokes the outsider gremlins and demiurges of many cultures, Slavic included, although note that in recent times it's African tricksters who've gotten the ink -- and that many pencilled in as white believe Roma are tricksters by definition and hate them for it. Note too that the trickster who goes a-poking is the priapic kind who in more naive times led mythic rock bands -- Mick Jagger, for instance, or Jimi Hendrix, even Axl Rose I s'pose. For years Gogol closed the show with a comely-or-less maiden climbing on a huge drum held aloft by eager fans and Hutz yowling beside her if not climbing on top of her. Occasionally you still encounter duller versions of this kind of strut on the jam circuit and in the more hedonistic strains of metal, or so I gather -- with my proclivity for songs and smarts, I don't follow either. But among bands sharper than Queens of the Stone Age, it's a lost myth. These immigrant punks are a messianic rock band in the '60s sense. They believe transcendent abandon and grotty fun are twin pathways to the divine within us that as a bonus feel really good. Nor do they ever forget that tricksters are also generally jokers. Their fun is funny.

Four or five years ago it looked like Gogol Bordello were ready to break on through. Hutz had bonded with superproducer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Shakira, Metallica), and in April 2010 followed Super Taranta! with Gogol's first major-label release, on Rubin's Columbia-distributed American Recordings imprint, Trans-Continental Hustle. But for all the good Rubin or Columbia did them, they might better have gone for the kind of generous revenue split that indies like their former Side One Dummy label often grant big draws. Trans-Continental Hustle ginned up their flattest songwriting since their 1999 debut as it leaned in toward the hard rock that's Rubin's meat and out toward the Latin beats Hutz was eating up in his new hometown, Rio de Janeiro. As often happens in bands with mercurial leaders, members drifted away. But on Pura Vida Conspiracy, produced by Rubin engineer Dave Schepps for Dave Matthews's ATO label, Gogol Bordello regroups. More melodic than ever by a major margin, Hutz even comes up with slow ones that touch the heart and hold the attention. And without slackening his messianic fervor, he shifts his goal from orgiastic rebellion toward what he has the chutzpah to call "another dimension of consciousness." As he told Billboard, of all places: "All the work in the studio wasn't like, 'what the fuck?' It was like 'fuck, yeah!' It's a drama either way, it's a fucking mess, but the 'fuck yeah' drama, that's our kind of drama."

To hear Hutz talk, it's all onward and upward. The band is proceeding apace, and the Latin tinge has been on his mind for years. Indeed, Trans-Continental Hustle provided the Williamsburg show more songs than Super Taranta!, never mind that two of them occasioned what suspiciously resembled a letdown. But Pura Vida Conspiracy itself tells a more nuanced story. Its first and strongest song, "We Rise Again" (repeat: 'Again') reclaims the band's "borders are scars on the face of the planet" turf. Then follows second-strongest, "Dig Deep Enough" (repeat: 'Enough'), and then "Malandrino," which is Brazilian for "trickster" and insists, cornily and liltingly by Hutz's previously established standards, "I was born with singing heart!" There's what sounds like a sea chantey and what sounds like a straight love song; there's a reincarnation hymn and a quiet tribute to the African-American trickster John the Conqueror and a reflection about navigating the sea of life that's quieter than that.

But given my special relationship with the anti-nostalgic "Ultimate," the new songs I find most striking are about Hutz revisiting his past. First he stows away back to Kiev in search of his "Lost Innocent World": "Bring me place my father showed me my first guitar chord." Then "The Other Side of Rainbow" reports on the results of his lifelong future quest: in the end, "It was black and white / It was black and white." But in "My Gypsy Auto Pilot" he runs into a "drunk girl policeman" he used to skip school with in Kiev and tells her he's spent the rest of his life skipping school some more: "I've been watching trains / Swiftly rolling by / I've been jumping them / Without long goodbyes / To uncover rules of life / And how to break them well / And the key to my gypsy auto pilot / And my story to tell." In the third repeat of that chorus, he switches to second person. He wants the policewoman to know that she also has rules to break well -- and a story to tell.

How priapic this encounter might eventually have turned is left unsaid, but don't jump to conclusions. On Pura Vida Conspiracy, Gogol Bordello have mellowed somewhat musically and Hutz has mellowed somewhat philosophically. From me, "mellow" is seldom a compliment. But a major reason the priapic rock god is a dinosaur is the increasingly evident limitations of that vision, and a major reason Gogol Bordello have always been such an up was that by linking that old style of energy and attitude to new cultural and musical conditions they've made its defiant joy signify philosophically in the 21st century. That's philosophically, however -- not politically. Of course Hutz has "good politics"; as you'd hope, he's supported Boycott Arizona and other immigrant causes, and Super Taranta!'s "Forces of Victory" is about continuing the struggle against an oppressor who transmutes from Pinochet to "any gang of four." But if you're serious about politics your future has to extend beyond tomorrow, which has never been his way. Now it's a little different.

The new Kiev songs are not nostalgic. Hutz's "innocent world" is definitively "lost" -- too many old comrades dead, and not only isn't there gold at the end of the rainbow, there isn't even color. In the end, his Gypsy autopilot will set the pied piper of the secondary markets jumping trains again. But he'll be more thoughtful about it, and in two of the last three songs, his quest seems to have shifted somewhat. In "Hieroglyph," Hutz calmly claims demiurge -- "I'm unity I'm gravity." And both halves of what amounts to a double finale, the first upbeat and the second very much not, hew to the same hackneyed existential value: "living and loving." For a guy who believes even his old cop girlfriend needs to find herself, a guy who used to end every show yowling or humping on top of a drum, this is mellow indeed.

There's one more thing too. If all goes well -- and Hutz knows better than you or I that often it doesn't -- he will return to Kiev, not to settle down but to honor the special part that secondary market has played in his story. He's sponsoring a venue called Casa Gogol there. It's due to open in the fall -- as he counts time, a long way past tomorrow.

 

About the Columnist
Robert Christgau is a critic at All Things Considered, writes for the National Arts Journalism Program's ARTicles blog, teaches in NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, and has published five books. His highly searchable website is robertchristgau.com.

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