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Various Artists featuring Voltaire and Jill Tracy
The Sepiachord Companion
After 10 years of releasing CDs through Projekt Records, Voltaire embarks on his first self-released studio album. And what a journey it is! Somewhere between concept record and full-blown musical, To The Bottom of the Sea tells the tale of a gypsy tinker and his tumultuous journey from his homeland in the mountains of Vorutania, to a watery grave at the ocean depths.
Back are Voltaire's signature gypsy violins and celtic rhythms (provided by long-time mates Kitzis, Goeke and Sorino). But new to the line-up is an accordion player, Franz Nicolay (World Inferno Friendship Society, The Hold Steady, Guignol) that catapults each track clean into the realm of gypsy punk (and piratey sea shanties on the second half of the disc). Also guesting on this CD is a cadre of all-stars from the gypsy punk scene including Johnny Kalsi (Firewater, The Dhol Foundation) on percussion, Ruet Regev (Firewater) on trombone, and Luminescent Orchestrii string players Sarah Alden and Rima Fand. The result is a turn-of-the-century romp sure to delight pirates, Steampunks and gypsies.
The Story: The CD opens up with a Billy Bragg-styled anthem in which our narrator explains how the Industrial Revolution is responsible for the homogenization of our culture. This kicks off a flash back to a turn-of-the-century, Eastern block country called Vorutania where our gypsy tinker and his mates revolt against the evil Robber Baron who tyrannically lords over them. Hints and nods to Gogol Bordello are evident as the peasants rise up and later celebrate drunkenly through the next few tracks of unbridled debauchery. In a mid-CD highlight, Voltaire winks at his colleagues The Dresden Dolls with a hilarious parody of "Coin Operated Boy" titled "Coin Operated Goi" (sung in a Yiddish accent, no less!) But alas, like in any good debauched anarchy, the power void leads to the inevitable war. This ushers in a coupling of somber tracks where Voltaire's voice, in a more intimate setting, takes on a low, smoky growl reminiscent of Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. Our protagonist tells his wife (sung by Polish chanteuse, Julia Marcell) that he must seek his fortune at sea. This lush and lyrical duet gives way to the second half of the CD in which our anti-hero sets out to sea and bring us all along for the voyage. Along the way are sea shanties, a rousing belly-dancing track and some Tom Waits-inspired dirges and romps. The closing track is a classic Voltaire skewering of society in which our narrator, back in the present day, explains why all of his tales must end so morbidly.
Voltaire's myspace page has long described himself as a "Renaissance man with Gypsy pirate band". That characterization has never been as true as it is on To The Bottom of the Sea. His 6th release really delivers the goods.
I can still remember the first time I heard The Devil's Bris—as someone who came to the Goth subculture by way of reading the fiction of Ann Radcliffe rather than that of Anne Rice, Voltaire's music struck me as essentially "Gothic" in a way that the EBM-based dance floor fodder that continues to dominate the club scene could never be. I was impressed by three aspects of Voltaire's music in particular: it is unique (no one else really sounds like Voltaire; his music is immediately identifiable), it is old world in style (influenced by gypsy rhythms, instead of reiterating the self-reflexive tropes of "Gothic music"), and its darkness is tempered by humor (let's face it, there is something inherently funny about a bunch of people dressed like dead folks dancing around like they can't hear the beat).
To the Bottom of the Sea is largely a return to the style of music Voltaire created with The Devil's Bris, and yet it even exceeds that album in delving into old world gypsy influences. Along with the expected acoustic guitar and strings, on his first self-released album Voltaire has added accordion, piano, tin whistle, darabuka, mandolin, and a roughshod chorus of friends. The songs are united by a somewhat vague concept that runs throughout most of the album; there's something going on in the fictional country of Vorutania involving a peasant uprising, pirates, and sea monsters. Fans of concept albums will be best pleased, but each song does stand on its own merits. My favorite songs on the album are "The Industrial Revolution (And How It Ruined My Life)," a paen to the time before Starbucks and rampant consumption, the fatalistic "Happy Birthday (My Olde Friend)," and Voltaire's duet with Julia Marcell on "This Sea." Of course, Voltaire's brand of wry humor is also present. Tracks such as "Coin Operated Goi," a riff off The Dresden Dolls's "Coin-Operated Boy," and "Death Death (Devil, Devil, Devil, Devil, Evil, Evil, Evil, Evil Song)" are sure to get a chuckle. In the end, Voltaire is still more classically Gothic than his contemporaries: To the Bottom of the Sea invokes images of peasants armed with torches and wooden stakes, ships capsizing on the cruel sea, the devil, robber barons, and hungry sea serpents. Ann Radcliffe would be proud. Rating: 4/5