Let’s get this out there right now: There’s really no way to describe Devotchka. It’s just not possible. Pinning down what makes Paul Wolfowitz so smarmy is much easier. (Psst: It’s the eyebrows; them things are pure evil.)
That isn’t to say some haven’t tried. Most of the time they end up spouting adjectives like a descriptive fire hydrant, spraying words everywhere but never really coming close to the target. There are often mentions of weddings, polkas, freedom, sorrow, escapism and hedonism, all wrapped up in flowers and booze and earthy food, like the band’s somehow a celebration of life in all its glory and pain. That’s fine and dandy, but it doesn’t really sum up Devotchka. It just makes them sound like a killer picnic band, which isn’t what frontman and founder Nick Urata wants to be known as. But, it’s not like he can come up with anything better.
“I guess, um. Well, when I’ve been asked this before I usually have some crap that I can spew, but … nothing, really,” he says like he’s admitting defeat. “I’ve tried to get all introspective and figure this out, but I really can’t.”
Which isn’t to say that Devotchka is some ear-splitting, otherworldly band that appeals only to latex-clad sadomasochists and chain-smoking hipster yuppies. This isn’t bizarro-world orchestral schlock that needs a decoder ring to understand or a doctorate in world music to appreciate. This was a band that used to back burlesque dancers, so by default it has to live in the hips.
And it’s built on the kind of stuff we all understand: Basic rock that owes a debt to both Jack Daniel’s and Roy Orbison; traditional Eastern-block folk that’s somehow sexy and decrepit at the same time; an indie aesthetic that says ruffled suits are cool, but the glockenspiel is cooler; Mexico as seen by Quentin Tarantino, dusty and full of bandito vampires. Alone that is easy to grasp, even the last one. But together—well, it somehow becomes mysterious and foreign while still feeling familiar in your bones.
And the kicker: It all sounds like it was meant to be together—tragic lovers who’d rather drink the poison than be alone type of together. It seems perfectly natural that “Charlotte Mittnacht (The Fabulous Destiny of)” should start off like a French organ grinder sans dancing monkey and end up the touching moment in a Cirque de Soleil production. Or that “The Enemy Guns” is the kind of song that could start bar fights, Urata’s high-pitched whistle substituting for the theme music to some forgotten spaghetti Western. Even when Urata hits that high howl on “Twenty-Six Temptations” over a bellowing tuba, it’s somehow fitting, his voice surfing atop some massive low-end wave.
Which alone might explain why CMJ has named the Denver quartet the Best Unsigned Band in America—and is still unsigned. It’s not that the ingredients aren’t there. Fans are constantly passing around copies of Devotchka’s three albums (also available at Devotchka.net) like drug dealers handing out free samples—addicts love company.
And the group’s live shows are legendary, like getting caught up in an old-world basement party where the only light comes from those strung around Jeannie Schroder’s tuba and the booze is straight from the backyard still. The band has even gotten some national exposure—a big accomplishment for a quirky regional act. The group’s song “Dearly Departed” was cited by NPR as one of the best songs of last year, and the band recently scored a feature during All Things Considered.
But because the group can’t be neatly described and packaged, record labels aren’t knocking down Urata’s door. “I’m glad we stand out in a crowd,” Urata says proudly. “Music is so boring now. The biggest compliment we can get from people is that we don’t bore them. That we’re doing something different that they haven’t heard before. But that also means we’re not easy to sell to people. It’s hard to convince people to spend $12 on a CD when you can’t tell them what it is.”
That’s why Urata keeps tabs on what’s written about the band; he’s curious about how other people try to wrap the sound. Over the course of the group’s five-year career, though, only one pattern has really emerged: Like Devotchka’s songs, every review is completely different.
“I’m interested in what critics have to say about us, the common threads that they attach to the music,” Urata admits. “It’s never the same. Even the bands that people try to compare us to—they never come up with the same one. But I guess it’s tough to talk about something that’s really intangible. And really, I’m OK with that.”
Which is great, because we still can’t come up with a damn thing.
DEVOTCHKA Egos, 668 S. State. Tuesday, March 1, 9:30 p.m. 521-5255