For the Denver-based quartet Devotchka, there are no musical borders, only a common thread of musical DNA called passion. The band's sound has been dubbed "Eastern Bloc indie rock." But the group's just as likely to play a mariachi hoedown, Left Bank ballad or spaghetti western epic as it is minor-key rock laments, Spanish fandangos or Gypsy waltzes. The common denominator is desire, thwarted or fulfilled, making Devotchka the perfect soundtrack for first loves, illicit assignations or star-crossed affairs.
Such unabashed romanticism hasn't been very popular in the rock world, where cynicism is worn like a badge of honor. But Devotchka and like-minded acts with an international flair and romantic streak -- think Montreal's Arcade Fire, Tucson's Calexico, Boston's Dresden Dolls or New York City's Cordero -- are finding a growing audience in the US for their decidedly un-jaded music. This growing popularity stateside is catching up with the adoring crowds these bands encounter in Europe, where romantic music has a much stronger tradition and rock & roll can still be a novelty.
"Some of our romanticism may be missing, but for them rock & roll is still kind of an exotic import," says Devotchka frontman Nick Urata.
Despite Devotchka's nearly decade-long run, Urata and his band mates -- the classically trained trio of Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King -- have just returned from their first European tour, opening a string of sold-out dates for the Dresden Dolls. This follows opening slots last year for M. Ward, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Regina Spektor -- signs that Devotchka's perseverance is paying off stateside as well. The group was named CMJ's Best Unsigned Band in 2004, played its first South by Southwest Festival in 2005, earned across-the-board hosannas for its third record, How It Ends, and plays its first Bonnaroo Festival this year.
The band landed another coup recently when scoring its first film, Little Miss Sunshine, a Sundance Film Festival darling that hits the theaters in July. The filmmakers heard "You Love Me" from How It Ends on Los Angeles's KCRW, and knew they had to have Devotchka provide music for their movie. The increased notoriety only confirms something Urata's felt all along. "I always knew there were tons of like-minded people and bands out there," he says. "The question was always how to get the music out there."
Film scores and occasional radio play are too infrequent to rely on, so the majority of exposure still comes one gig at a time. Devotchka has an advantage live that is inspired by its earliest shows as the back-up band for a touring burlesque act, as well as a fondness for cabaret. To go along with the band's unconventional instrumentation -- theremin, accordion, glockenspiel, bouzouki, violin and sousaphone play equal roles with guitars, upright bass and drums -- Devotchka's headlining shows often feature aerialists, dancers and other performers, as well as video projections. Urata isn't sure what the Devotchka's upcoming Charlotte show will include, but it's bound to put the "show" back in "live show."
"We're not your typical band to look at," Urata says.
The grandchild of an arranged marriage between a Sicilian and Gypsy, Urata has a captivating stage presence, as much ringleader and MC as front man. At last year's M. Ward gig in Chapel Hill, even the chattiest hipsters grew quiet when Urata sang in a voice that sounded like Caruso channeling Roy Orbison. On How It Ends, a concept record about a young ranchero who survives war only to find his childhood sweetheart has married for money, Urata's voice fits each song's personality. This is even more evident on Devotchka's just-released EP of covers for Ace Fu Records, Curse Your Little Heart. Urata sounds equally at ease turning in a majestic version of Siouxsie & the Banshees' "The Last Beat of My Heart" as he does crooning the Sinatra standard "Something Stupid" or growling through Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs."
Urata's vocal versatility matches Devotchka's wide-ranging musical skills, which helps explain a cover song repertoire that runs from Elvis Presley and Neil Young to Brahms.
"I always look for something universal in the song with the melody or the lyrics, something that's going to transform well no matter who does it," Urata says. "We choose these not only because we feel they're good songs, but because we can put our own little twist on them."
There are too many musical styles at Devotchka's disposal to guess at what twist it'll opt for on any given song. But here's betting it's a passionate one.