Gogol Bordello ‘Trans-Continental Hustle’ Album Review

Gogol Bordello is a gypsy-punk group formed on New York’s Lower East Side in 1999 by Eugene Hutz, émigré guitarist, vocalist, lyricist and frontman for the group. They have an incendiary reputation as one of rock’s greatest live bands, so much so that noted producer Rick Rubin got involved with this recording, their fifth album. The group takes its name from Russian author Nikolai Gogol, the author of the hilarious, bitter, sardonic, and highly readable novel Dead Souls. Well, this group is anything but dead.

Serious and/or sober as you may be when you put the record on, in a few moments you are transported to a multicultural dance party that will leave you gasping for breath, craving another shot of vodka, and leering at any living thing of either sex under the age of 90 who happens to come near you. Yes, Gogol Bordello are bad, real bad, and that’s good.

Their record reminds me of a long-forgotten masterpiece of American rock insanity which was entitled Life In The Foodchain. It was written and sung by Tonio K when most of the American public was listening to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. Steve Simels of Stereo Review named Foodchain “The Greatest Record Ever Made”. Well, here’s the 2010 update of Foodchain, and Rubin captures on record all of the live energy for which Gogol Bordello is notorious.

Tonio K would be proud of ‘Transcontinental Hustle’. Eugene Hutz appears on the record cover as a moustachioed, shirtless, guitar-loving freak of nature who has somehow convinced eight similar-minded humans to join the asylum he calls a group. This record starts out with its foot heavy on the accelerator and drives towards madness, mixes in politics, revolution, immigrant injustices, and chainsaw guitars layered with fiddles, accordions, and whoops of drunken glee. It’s pretty much the same for the next hour or so. You may be able to tell one song from another, and you may even bother to read the lyrics, but I don’t believe that matters much. As Hutz says in Raise the Knowledge “Revolution is internal/ Help yourself at any time.”

The title of this record probably emanates from the many locations the group members have lived. Hutz himself has moved on from New York to Brazil, and picked up a few more musical influences from South American music along the way, in addition to those of America and his native Eastern Europe.

The standout track is a full-throttle number called We Comin’ Rougher (Immigraniada) and it features fierce drumming overlaid with chanting and a boiling, urgent vocal performance. Punk never sounded like this before, with Eugene uttering such literate and provocative lyrics as “in corridors full of tear gas, our destinies jammed every day, like deleted scenes from Kafka flushed down the bureaucratic drain”. Maybe only Hutz could breathe life into these words, but he does so in his trademarked wild gruff way that leaves me wanting more. They’re words you can dance to, believe or not, that is if you’re attending on your own your lost sweetheart’s Hungarian wedding, drowning your sorrows and desires with your third bottle of the cheapest fermented potato juice available.

On the other hand these guys are capable of surprising the listener with a tender and sentimental ballad like Sun Is On My Side, which is supported by some delicate Brazilian guitar. Don’t worry, their forays into genuine sincerity don’t last. Rubin apparently forced Hutz into concentrating on the songwriting, not just on the live act, and while that shows, it doesn’t alter the essential nature of Gogol Bordello. All that comes to mind when you hear the band’s name happens in these tunes. Don’t take it too seriously, though, just as the Russian people never took Gogol too seriously. He was their greatest comedian, and I would vote for Bordello as the finest comics in rock music today. I wouldn’t call them punk, or rock, or gypsy, but I would call them, and I’d definitely go out of my way to see one of their live shows.

This one, by the way, is available in vinyl. The larger format cover is worth framing.