Trans-Continental Hustle | Album Review
Eugene Hutz, tireless rabble-rousing frontman for gypsy-punk iconoclasts Gogol Bordello, has traveled great literal and spiritual distances to be where he is today. A teenage Hutz immigrated to the United States as a political refugee in the early 1990s at the conclusion of an arduous journey begun in his native Ukraine. Assembling his band in New York City in 1999, he’s spent over two decades pouring passion and sweat into establishing Gogol Bordello as one of America’s most chaotically enthralling live acts and relentlessly ebullient recording artists.
Hutz’s odyssey has been so dogged and so deeply felt that it has become the great subject of his art itself. Much like its predecessors, Gogol Bordello’s fifth studio album, the aptly titled Trans-Continental Hustle, is largely about the experience of being Gogol Bordello, about overcoming stigmas against immigrants and America’s tacit favoring of bland one-world homogenization in order to carve out a vibrant, warts-and-all space where life can be celebrated and differences cherished. In songs like “Break the Spell”, “Raise the Knowledge”, and “Rebellious Love” Hutz seems more polemical street philosopher and positivist guru (no wonder Madonna’s a fan) than conventional rock frontman, refusing to put any distance or irony between himself and his artistic creations.
In the past, Hutz has rarely allowed songcraft to get in the way of his manic exultations of joy and frenzied bouts of soul-searching. That changes somewhat with Trans-Continental Hustle, as Gogol Bordello work with famed producer Rick Rubin, who ostensibly is largely responsible for a newfound emphasis on nuance and dynamics, in contrast to the always-in-fifth-gear MO that has defined the band. Results are mixed– “Sun Is on My Side” offers lovely accordion and a weary, haunting refrain, but the midtempo “Uma Menina Uma Cigana” feels flat and perfunctory, while the lugubriousness of “When Universes Collide” actually undermines Hutz’s harrowing, poverty-tinged lyrics.
Hutz’s emboldening exhortations and the band’s sweatily democratic live show make it clear that Gogol Bordello wish to foster a massive brotherhood of open-hearted partiers. Such non-stop full-throttling might work for punk-rock true believers, but the band’s inviting uniqueness ensures that its admirers will be more far-flung than that, and most of us don’t want to spend our entire lives in the red. In that context it makes sense for Hutz and the group to try taking a more multifarious approach, but honestly it just doesn’t play to their strengths. I may only want to join his raucous shindig every now and again, but its nice knowing he’s always somewhere tearing the roof off.
— Joshua Love, April 28, 2010