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Gogol Bordello, Big-Hearted Gypsy Punks, Breathe Fire, Radiate Warmth on Sixth Album, ‘Pure Vida Conspiracy’

Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hütz, kicking that door out / Photo by Dana Distortion
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: July 22, 2013
Label: ATO/Casa Gogol

You need proof of punk rock’s cultural relevancy in these defiantly non-punk times? Just consider recent blows against the empire from Russian media stars Pussy Riot (jailed and martyred in their efforts to combat Putin the sexist) and French-Algerian raï superstar Rachid Taha (he of “Rock el Casbah” fame, collaborating again with former Clash members on his new album, Zoom). Both acts claim punk as adopted birthright, even if the embattled feminists in Pussy Riot admirably embrace an Oi! palette that’s archaic everywhere outside their home country, while Taha the cosmopolitan merely selects Strummer/Jones fervor as one musical choice among many. But they share a belief in punk’s capacity for political oomph, a belief with few acolytes as warmly committed as Eugene Hütz and his Lower East Side (by way of Ukraine) gypsy-punk band of brawlers, Gogol Bordello.

Fifteen years of performance-oriented Brechtian thrash has tightened this outfit, not always for the better — following up the frenzied heights of 2007’s Super Taranta! with the pedestrian worldbeat of 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle suggested a deflationary arc, especially after the ever-peripatetic Hütz swapped out New York for Brazil. But three years off and a split from Rick Rubin’s American Recordings have rejuvenated band and songwriter alike. Once again poised to crash your staid American wedding (still no marinated herring?), propped up via Sergey Ryabtsev’s fiddle swoops and Yuri Lemeshev’s accordion runs, Hütz strums acoustic intros only to lurch into the double-time lingua franca of polka/hardcore, shunting mariachi horns onto multilingual Balkan square-dances and penning a rousing sea shanty that brings to mind the Pogues swilling horilka rather than Guinness.

Although his enthusiastic cups notably runneth over, Hütz is a greater poet than his clownish antics sometimes suggest. A great a lover of arcane verbiage and folk wisdom as evidenced by his band’s literary namesake, he tells tales of bursting songfully forth from the womb, references stuttering parrots and hoodoo folk legend John the Conqueror, and offers up this wondrous boast on the supremely silly “Hieroglyph”: “I’m unity / I’m gravity / I’m wind of eternity.” And while he casts his Slavic gaze repeatedly upon society’s ills, few rock figureheads remain so incorruptibly big-hearted, devoted as he is to what critic Robert Christgau once pinpointed as Hütz’s “politics of joy”: “Freedom fighters / Igniters,” yes, but also trees bending against heavy winds and encouraging words like “If you’ve got no place where you belong / Don’t hesitate, kick that door out.”

There are no sinners and saints in this immigrant philosophy, which, when coupled with earnest (and purposefully broken-English) proclamations like “Borders are scars on face of the planet,” might open itself to charges of soggy idealism. So remember this half-Roma’s gypsy proclivities weren’t leisurely in origin — his Kiev family abandoned Ukraine following the Chernobyl meltdown. That incident lends real weight to his reminisces in “Lost Innocent World” of a “place where all my friends are still alive,” or such Old World utterances as “Where is the exit? / Of course, there is none.” Still, humor and mirth best define this voracious multicultural outfit, no matter how many tunes are set in minor keys. After all, as the assembled crew belt out during that sea shanty, “It’s the way you name your ship / That’s the way you’re going to row.”