One interesting thing about the glut of multinational roots-influenced bands that cropped up in the last decade has been watching them parse their diverse influences, figuring out sustenance beyond the initial novelty of their culture colliding sounds. Devotchka’s interpretation of Balkan and Eastern European folk tropes always seemed to fall in the middle of the spectrum, not as madcap and careless as Gogol Bordello, not as elegant and structured as Beirut. That lack of a signature position has developed into a wider malaise on 100 Lovers, where, shorn of the exigencies of cramming together varied sounds, the band has slipped further into the great middle.
This process has been in action since their 2001 debut, Supermelodrama, where those global influences were a calling card, but never a fully exploited element. Songs like “Devotchka!” were naïvely self-assured despite their wholesale porting of overdriven gypsy punk without any creative input from the band. This kind of lazy confidence had a certain charm, but was also clumsy. Here that verve has melted into a defeatist conventionality, with songs that don’t reproduce a specific style as much as the status quo. A track like “All the Band in the Sea,” while more conceptually and melodically rigorous, pushes the band’s usual influences back into mere window dressing via a subtle violin backing track, the band otherwise relying on standard indie-rock techniques.
This whole cycle is distilled on a track like “The Common Good,” which opens with a bland world music fusion of wailing Middle Eastern violin and Spanish-tinged handclaps. The band briefly finds an interesting rejoinder, thrumming up a nasty guitar gurgle that briefly creates a spine for the whole equation. Rather than pursue this to a more creative end, the band uses it as a stepping stool to an approximation of Arcade Fire-style bluster, segueing from traditionalist appropriation to a more modern equivalent.
Devotchka has at least found a way to continue making tuneful, relatively entertaining music, as their contemporaries either verge on self-parody or have given up altogether. But nothing about 100 Lovers suggests anything more than another attempt to break even.