By Tom Lynch
Young girl, get outta my mind,” Gary Puckett crooned so convincingly in 1968. It’s doubtful he penned the song from the perspective of a shamed Chicago R&B singer, and equally unlikely he was speaking as Alex from Burgess’ 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange.”
Denver quartet DeVotchKa, which takes its name from Burgess’ Nasdat term, meaning “young girl,” began its career as a backing band at burlesque shows (they even toured with Dita von Teese), and after a performance at the 2006 Bonnaroo festival were seemingly plucked from nowhere by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to write the score for their hit yellow-van road flick, “Little Miss Sunshine.” The band’s blend of folk music and Eastern European gypsy punk (violins, accordions, organ galore) brings a worldly taste the material—singer Nick Urata’s expressive, smoothly affecting voice spreads across the songs like butter to bread. For “Little Miss Sunshine,” it was mostly instrumental—pretty enough, modestly moving, but for “A Mad & Faithful Telling” (ANTI-), DeVotchKa’s new full-length, the elements are in full force and the swirling soundscape could drive you a bit bezoomny.
Not to say it’s not beautiful, cathartic like Arcade Fire’s cathartic. Songs like “Along the Way,” “The Clockwise Witness” and “Transliterator” are the probably the best the band has done. This here is DeVotchKa’s breakout record, an assertion that this Colorado band is no niche act, but a group of artists expanding the boundaries of modern indie rock.
“We had a loose plan,” Urata says of the time of the record’s creation. “Most importantly we just wanted to get at least ten compelling songs on tape. I know that’s not very romantic, but that was the number-one priority.”
He continues, “Once the songs began to develop, we came out with a plan. We definitely wanted to see if we could explore using more complex string arrangements and still have a listenable kind of, well, enjoyable record… At first, we had a tendency to over-arrange stuff, and we had to prune some stuff down. But Tom Hagerman [the band’s violinist], the house string-arranger, took a trial-and-error approach.”
Urata says that with “A Mad & Faithful Telling,” he knew it would be reaching a larger audience than what the band was used to. “It did creep in my mind a lot,” he says. “I tried to keep it at bay. It was kind of obvious, a lot more people were gonna hear it, and to another degree, review it. I tried not to think about that… Every artist goes through this recording, reaches an impasse… you start to doubt if it was a good idea in the first place. There are moments of doubt and terror like that. We had some friends with us though, and they’re pretty good at protecting us from ourselves.”
The band’s been together for more than a decade, a long, long time to struggle as an act. What’s kept them together for all these years? “Certainly the thing that got us together,” he says, “a like-minded approach and an aspiration to sort of make a culture clash of something original—not necessarily original—but composing original music. I think that’s what has kept us together. We were playing coffee shops and crappy parties at art galleries, but there was always a sort of response, we broke down barriers with people, reached some people. That kept us going. Even if it was just one or two people at a time, it was enough to get us back into rehearsal.”
That time spent together, learning each other’s individual creation process, did ultimately make the band more secure as songwriters. “I definitely saw a lot more confidence in the studio in the songwriting process,” Urata says. “We left a lot more to chance in the studio. I think it was a good thing to do, and we were afraid to do that in the past, because if something went wrong, we didn’t have time or couldn’t afford to fix it. [This time] we took a little bit more laissez-faire approach.”
The term “cinematic” gets thrown around much too often, but Urata’s lyrics invoke specific imagery, and not just a beat-up yellow van. Are these images in his head when he’s penning the band’s songs? “Definitely,” he says. “The way my approach and my mind works, when I’m writing a song, I sort of imagine a film going on. I always kind of picture myself as a filmmaker without a camera. I always imagine a movie that goes along with a song… I always used music and [writing songs] as a kind of escapism—if you tap into something that takes you away, out of the room, I think you’re on to something.”
DeVotchKa plays May 9 at the Vic Theatre, 3145 North Sheffield, (773)618-8439, at 7:30pm.