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Gogol Bordello: Trans-Continental Hustle (Album Review)

Since Super Taranta!, Gogol Bordello’s excellent 2007 breakthrough, the band has built plenty of hot anticipation for a follow-up by earning a reputation as one of rock’s most combustible live bands. Along the way, they caught the ear of goldsmith-guru Rick Rubin, who has produced their fifth album, Trans-continental Hustle.

Gogol has the kind of fiercely loyal audience that grows jealous of its beloved band, so the news of Rubin’s involvement came with both eagerness and anxiety. After all, Rubin has busied himself lately by smoothing the edges out of roots/Americana artists like Brandi Carlile, Johnny Cash, and the Avett Brothers, and some fans feared that Gogol’s full-throttle attack would go soft under Rubin’s tutelage.

However, Gogol groupies can put those fears aside for Trans-continental Hustle, remembering that Rubin is also the producer who has been on the front lines of some seriously heavy music, often moving bands further into the mainstream, yes, but without compromising their essential heaviosity. Gogol Bordello is not Slayer, but anyone who has attended a Gogol show will tell you that you’d better be ready, if not for an elbow in the ear, then at least for the ethno-clash dance party of your life. Anyone describing this band is required by federal mandate to use the phrases “gypsy punk” and “multi-ethnic”, true enough labels, but whatever you call them (Slav-rock? Ukrave? Worldcore?), Gogol Bordello gives Rubin an opportunity to shape the evolution of another band known for unbridled energy, and it’s a project that again proves the profit of such a pairing.

For the uninitiated, Gogol Bordello is a nine-piece group (counting their two female dancers) formed by singer/guitarist/songwriter/actor Eugene Hütz on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1999. They may be a New York band, but their individual members are almost all immigrants from the world over: Bassist Thomas Gobena is from Ethiopia; accordionist Yuri Lemeshev and violinist Sergey Ryabtzev were both born in Russia; percussionist Pedro Erazo is from Ecuador; guitarist Oren Kaplan is Israeli; etc.

It’s an eclectic, high-voltage ensemble, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off Ukrainian-born Hütz, the wild, shirtless, mustachioed ball of sweaty charisma who arrived in the US in 1991. Hütz’s strangled voice spits out garbled English as he prowls the stage, assaults his acoustic guitar, leans menacingly over the audience, spins in circles on one foot, and bangs on fire buckets. Violinist Ryabtzev is the Kenickie to Hütz’s Danny Zuko. He’s an elegant mover, all silver beard and jaunty beret and tasteful footwear, and his streaking violin runs provide the rocket fuel in these songs’ arrangements. Fiddler on the Roof? With this band’s mind-bending spectacle, it’s more like Fiddler on the Acid. Indeed, a GB show is part concert, part manic cabaret—a wild blend of Les Miserables, Bad Brains, Stomp!, and the craziest Russian wedding ever.

What must have attracted Rubin in the first place is the effect Gogol has on audiences, generally comprised of a mix of undergraduates, aging hippies, anarcho-punkers, costumed gypsy girls, and various facial-hair aficionados. Once the band hits the stage, though, the diversity disappears (similar to the integration onstage) into a roiling boil of flailing and moshing to such an extent that you’ll want to keep your internist on speed-dial.

While Hustle captures this kinetic fire, the new record, whether by Rubin’s influence or not, does ease the band away from the episodes of strident punk that tend to erase the band’s instrumentalists and hammer an otherwise wholly original band into ugly mook rock. Instead, Hustle focuses on the band’s true strength—blending melody and poly-rhythmic punch, coalescing cultures and styles into a common, exuberant melting-pot dance party. It is a rousing, swirling set of songs, starting with a blistering one-two punch in “Pala Tute” and “My Companjera”.

The record as a whole sounds terrific, and Rubin has done for Hütz what he’s done recently for Carlile, Neil Diamond, the Dixie Chicks, and others, which is to both spit-shine the music into sonically fresh vibrancy and to hone the artists’ songwriting chops to, in most cases, simplify toward the tightest song structures and most pleasurable melodies. “Pala Tute” kicks things off, for instance, with Hütz’s acoustic-guitar galloping alone before bashing into an accordion-and-fiddle inferno designed to blow the roof off the club, or at least your house party. The song gets increasingly frantic to the point that language will no longer suffice, giving over to Hütz’s scatting and savage “Hghyaahs!”.

“My Companjera” is even more frenetic, slamming that up-beat, with Ryabtzev firing off fiddle rides like he’s playing the friggin’ “Orange Blossom Special”. The song’s lyrics lean toward nostalgia, a new direction for Gogol and a marked difference from the fatalism that defined much of their earlier albums. Then again, Hütz’s songs aren’t easy to explicate, even when he sounds vaguely romantic, as on the (relatively) gentle “Sun Is on My Side”: ““When the sun comes up / It will be on your side. It’s a song that finds Hütz approaching conventional singing over graceful finger-picked guitar, which then gives way to a dub-inflected cadence.

Hustle hits another stride with “Rebellious Love”, crammed with chugging acoustic guitars, driving beats, whiplash guitar lines, layered backing vocals, and lines that walk a tightrope between empty and deep: “Love is running back to God/God is running after man/Men all run to the unknown”. It’s a kick to hear the fiddle and accordion team up on James Bond riffs to tango with Hütz’s hot-tar vocals. Everything is loud and insistent, but it never descends into the hardcore elements of the live show. “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” comes the closest to scratching the itch of those who prefer Gogol’s punk edge; it’s full of jackhammer drums and full-throated chanting. The subtitle and political, rebellious tone of “Immigrandia” combine to feel like a refutation of notions that a major-label deal should necessarily temper this band’s spirit.

Elsewhere, the album depicts scenes of urban hell, full of governmental aggression, “like deleted scenes from Kafka” (good one), a landscape full of machine guns, helicopters, slums, and authorities “preparing an ethno-cleansing ride”. Still, while these songs often build to maximum urgency, the lyrics never preclude the songs’ primal propulsion, which forces you to move your body. Whether in the Brazilian strains of “Uma Menina” or the sneaky fiddle-and-bass groove that smolders for five minutes in “Raise the Knowledge” or the sing-song ska undulation of “Last One Goes to Hope”, Hustle is an album of, above all, persistent motion.

The record lags for a while in the middle but starts to pick up intensity and hooks again with “To Rise Above”, a blast of punchy existentialism (“I lay awake at night / Across my mind is one eternal fight”), and the machine-gun strumming and tongue-taxing wordplay of “In the Meantime in Pernambuco”. “Break the Spell” is another ripper of slapping drums and accordion mischief, and we can thank Rubin, one imagines, for that rock-guitar breakdown in the middle.

For all the lyrical skepticism in these songs, the music is too damned exuberant to worry too much. If anything, the relentless tempos and sheer energy of the band might wear you out before you get to the end of the hour-long record. If not, you’ll reach the title cut at the end, another bristling locomotive that relies heavily on non-word chants, as if by proving that whatever the songs are about, the express purpose of a new Gogol Bordello album is to cause people to lose control at their shows. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially given this band’s singular achievement: combining so many world-hopping elements that the music becomes positively universal. Everybody hustle.