by David Von Nordheim, A&E editor for The Current
One could easily be forgiven for confusing “Give,” the latest release from Balkan Beat Box, with any of the other albums the group has released since their self-titled debut. From the skittish breakbeats, the worldbeat choirs and Ori Kaplan’s bleating saxophone, the album offers very few hints of innovation or progress in BBB’s signature fusion of dance club hedonism and world music mysticism. Still, though “Give” may find the former gypsy punk underdogs content to rest on their laurels, the international techno cabaret remains a compelling gimmick, albeit a familiar one.
Much like their decreasingly relevant compatriot M.I.A., Balkan Beat Box thrives on juxtaposing world music influences, particularly the traditionally unfunky territory between the Middle East and eastern Europe, with more radio-friendly styles, like dancehall reggae, hip hop, and electropop. Also like M.I.A., many of BBB’s tracks are informed by a largely inconsequential undercurrent of political commentary. From the vaguely anti-capitalist “Money,” to the outright nonsensical “Political Fuck,” “Give” continuously subverts its world party vibes with half-hearted stabs at First World privilege.
Fortunately, the music behind the group’s rather indistinct ideology makes up for the lyrical shortcomings. Like BBB’s previous albums, “Give” is a Creole of club-friendly production and multicultural collaborators. The album repeats many of the production stunts BBB have been recycling since their first release, such as their insistence on recording live drum tracks only to chop, screw and sample them throughout the album. One notable departure is the absence of a revolving door cast of guest MC’s, a move which makes “Give” seem monotonous when compared to the “wonder who’ll show up next” charms of “Nu Med” or “Blue Eyed Black Boy.”
The core of the group remains saxophonist Kaplan and producer Tamir Muskat, both former members of cult favorite Gogol Bordello, a group whose marriage of Mediterranean folk traditions and snotty Western punk was a clear influence on Balkan Beat Box. Though it may be read a Balkan Beat Box review that avoids belaboring the parallels between BBB and their better-known father group, it is a connection, no matter how obvious, which bears mentioning.
After Gogol Bordello reached their creative zenith with the underground classic “Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike,” the group’s subsequent albums suffered the admittedly well-deserved accusation of being little more than novelties. Gogol Bordello proved unable to offer anything more than a single gimmick, and as impressive as that gimmick was, it was simply not enough to sustain an entire career. It was hard not to see the same trend of unrepentant repetition infecting Balkan Beat Box, and “Give” offers very little evidence to the contrary. Though the album’s globe-trotting discotheque routine is entertaining at first listen, there is really nothing here which demands repeated listening.
Still, this may all be moot criticism considering Balkan Beat Box’s reputation has always hinged more on its energetic live show, a veritable circus of club antics and worldbeat anthems. The final word on “Give” will most likely come once BBB hits the tour circuit; fortunately, interested readers will have this very opportunity when Balkan Beat Box performs at St. Louis’s Old Rock House this Sunday, June 3.