Vagabond Opera Plays For Their Lives
One of this year’s most original releases in the constantly exploding world of gypsy rock is Vagabond Opera’s Sing for Your Lives. Portland, Oregon is a hotbed of good gypsy music: Fishtank Ensemble and MarchFourth Marching Band also hail from there. This group goes for an especially carnivalesque, theatrical vibe: the “opera” in their name is sometimes a misnomer, but sometimes not. Because of that, ironically, the best songs on this album are the instrumentals. Which isn’t to say that the vocal numbers aren’t good, it’s just that sometimes the torrents of lyrics and arch, Beirut-esque vocals go over the top to the point where they veer off toward Pink Martini territory and you wish the band would come in and take over: they could stick with just cellist Ashia Grzesik out in front and be better off for it. But the biting strings, rich accordion swells and horns make their sometimes austere, sometimes lavish minor-key epics irresistible: this album gets better as it goes along.
Sometimes the campiness actually works. Just the concept of the surreal steampunk tango, Red Balloon – about a guy who goes up and never comes back – is impossible not to smile at, as are the lyrical innuendos. The band really starts cooking on Tough Mazel, a ferocious klezmer mini-suite with a biting clarinet solo, viola and violin firing verses back and forth at each other as it winds out. Beard and Moustache is a silly but ultimately spot-on satire of tired trends in facial hair; they follow that with a couple of steampunk-flavored narratives that have some terrific playing (particularly Eric Stern’s soaring, spiraling accordion) but ultimately don’t really go anywhere.
The best track here is King of the Gypsies, a searing chromatic tune with machine-gun horns that swoops down to a swirly, almost dub interlude with suspenseful violin before they take it up again. Spirit Dances Evermore, sung passionately by Grzesik, is a celebration of gypsy roots with a gorgeous succession of solos for pretty much everybody in the band as it winds out. Lullaby is much darker than its title implies, moving from ominous vocalese over a throat-singing drone to a trickily circular, contrapuntal, Macedonian-flavored vamp. They follow that with Hanumonsoon, a surprisingly successful detour into acoustic bhangra, with a nice, blippy chromatic alto sax solo. And that’s pretty much where the album ends: the country waltz that follows has another one of those luscious accordion solos and not much else, while the sprawling title track reaches for Gogol Bordello-style pandemonium but falls short. This is one of those albums that you’ll want to completely resequence when you upload it – and most of it is well worth the effort. And for all the occasional camp, they sound like they’d be a lot of fun live. Portland fans who don’t already know them – or who do – can catch them on New Years Eve at about 10 PM at Refuge, 116 SE Yamhill.
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