I have a unique relationship with Gogol Bordello. Born in Ukraine and growing up speaking Russian in a Ukrainian family, when I listen to the band I hear different things to most of their fanbase. Where people hear the quaint and infectious intonation of a gypsy rockstar, I hear the drunken revelry of my grandmother’s friends on Russian New Year’s.
Singer Eugene Hutz’ heavily-accented, slightly guttural vocals remind me half-the-time of the middle-aged sleaze bags with whom I have to deal with when entering the Russian grocery store three suburbs over to buy my grandmother a copy of the local Russian newspaper (inside is a TV guide for the Russian satellite stations, which my grandmother prizes like a Catholic would treat bible that the Pope gave her.)
The other half of the time I’m reminded of the programs on said Russian satellite stations. Evenings they broadcast revues featuring all of Russia’s biggest pop-stars and often they cover American songs in the original English. The results are usually horrendous. And while Hutz’ cadence and enunciation is nowhere near as horrific as hearing a man who’s never carried an English conversation in his life attempt “Hey There Delilah” or “Sex Bomb”, I can’t quite shake those cringe-inducing memories.
Not very good.
The instrumentation similarly reminds me of the songs enjoyed by my grandmother’s friends when I was forced to attend various 5oth and 6othbirthday parties. In fact most tracks remind me of various songs I remember hearing in my mother’s car. I swear to God “I Just Realized” is a note-for-note ripoff of a track by some faceless singer I heard when I was 7 and when I next see my grandmother, I’m certain I’ll have my suspicions confirmed.
Pura Vida Conspiracy is already being called Gogol Bordello’s most conventional album, and in a sense it is. There’s definitely more gypsy than punk, and most of the tracks are subdued, 4-4 folk-rockers. Though at times propulsive, they mostly stay grounded and never build much momentum of the course of their 3 minutes. Songs like “Hieroglyph” and the aforementioned “I Just Realized” are sombre ballads that create a good respite from the cheerful, string and accordion-laden tracks that make up most of Pura Vida Conspiracy.
But what most fans don’t realise about this band, and what makes talk of conventionality all the more poignant, is Gogol Bordello’s dirty secret. The fact is that most of these songs are no different to the singer-songwriters who take the stages of the revues on Russian television. They too are often accompanied by accordion players and string-sections and sing similarly tuneful songs of bittersweet loss and heartbreak. Granted, they never get as raucous as album opener “We Rise Again”, but the rest of the album is frankly quite derivative of the stuff the government let my folks listen to in the 70s.
And while I respect and in some cases rather enjoy that music, I find Hutz’ vocals and the sentiment behind his band so grating that I have to write it off as just my nan’s music. And therein lies the problem with Gogol Bordello, particularly with an album as “conventional” as Pura Vida Conspiracy. Much in the way that people will tell you that if you wanna listen to the “real” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, you should check out The Jesus and Mary Chain, if you wanna hear the “real” Gogol Bordello you can flip through the cassettes in my mother or grandmother’s music collection.
But that’s really just Russian pop music and most would understandably write it off as lame. This leads me to believe that Gogol Bordello’s quality is really all in the novelty.