Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Geoff Berner’s Pyrrhic Victory Party – One of the Year’s Best

Cynical, insightful, hilarious and iconoclastic, Canadian klezmer rocker Geoff Berner comes off as sort of the Eugene Hutz of current-day Jewish music. After wrapping up his Whiskey Rabbi trilogy, Berner made this ferocious, fearless latest one, Victory Party, with Canadian Jewish music maven Socalled. Berner is ironically more of a throwback to oldschool klezmer than any of the klezmer revivalists: in the days of the pogroms, klezmers (Jewish musicians) tended to be hellraisers, outcasts not only in society as a whole but often within their own culture as well, and Berner seems to embrace that fate as he calls bullshit on pretty much everyone who deserves it. This is a hell of an album, and ironically, though the music is more retro, less punk than his previous stuff, his vision is more fearlessly punk than ever.

The album gets off to a low-key, cynical start with the title track, a pyrrhic victory where the narrator journeys through a nightmare past “the charred remains of the orphanage, past the dogshit and corpses” to what poses for a party. “I knew we were right on the brink of our best years,” Berner remarks flatly. At his site, he explains that the song was inspired by the true story of a death camp survivor who “returned to Berlin to reclaim his bar. He paid German musicians to play klezmer tunes while he slowly drank himself to death.” Michael Winograd’s sarcastically blithe clarinet lights up the bouncy Jackie the Pimp, which offers an Iceberg Slim-style look at the downside of the profession. Wealthy Poet chronicles the ways the guy will help his girlfriend escape the oppressors, finally by giving her some matches so she can burn off her fingerprints at the border, the violins of Diona Davies and Brigitte Dajczer snarling and smoldering overhead.

The famous Yiddish-American protest song Mayn Rue Platz is transformed into a gorgeous duet with otherworldly vocals from Chinese-Canadian siren/erhu player Lan Tung. I Kind of Hate Songs with Ambiguous Lyrics is self-explanatory, and an instant classic, a song that needed to be written; Dalloy Polizei – a reworking of a hundred-year-old Russian Jewish folk tune – commemorates the murder of Ian Bush, shot from behind in police custody in Houston, British Columbia after being arrested for having an open container of beer. And with Berner’s accordion driving a cruelly amusing, deadpan, rustic shtetl-style cover of Canadian girlpunks the Sluttards’ I Am Going to Jail, he finds the commonalities between centuries of persecution of Jews, and centuries of persecution of nonconformists of all kinds.

A brutally sarcastic techno song, Oh My Golem explores the cruel irony of how the original, idealistic concept of Zionism was appropriated by genocidal, anti-Palestinian wingnuts in Israel. There’s also a plaintive, sad version of the waltz Cherry Blossoms, and a woozily slinky epic titled Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religous Agenda that pokes fun at religious cults. Savagely aware, catchy and contemptuous, this is refusenik rock at its best. Watch for this on our best albums of 2011 list at the end of the year if any of us are still alive to compile it.

March 26, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toca Loca’s Shed Offers Some Crazy Crashes

Adventurous Canadian trio Toca Loca’s cryptically titled new album Shed is a strangely captivating, grippingly energetic, strikingly rhythmic collection of new and older avant garde music. Pianist/conductor Gregory Oh, pianist Simon Docking and percussionist Aiyun Huang muscle up on a demanding quartet of numbers made for headphones: you can get lost in this stuff. It’s a wonder they don’t too.

The first piece, Half-Remembered City by Dai Fujikura, is a samurai piano duo for four hands. Oh and Docking have injured each other while playing it. Much of it involves passages where one holds down the keys silently while the other hammers away so as to evince overtones out of the dampened strings. There are a lot of pregnant pauses, along with a little leapfrogging and some furtive scurrying and flying cascades amid the slambang staccato. The album liner notes make no mention of whether the pianists injured themselves this time around, or how (or whether) they avoid making mistakes, or if improvisation is part of the process. Either way, it’s impossible to tell.

Huang premiered Heinz Holliger’s Ma’Mounia in 2002 in Geneva. If anything she does here was overdubbed during recording, that’s understandable: she has her hands full, with seemingly an entire orchestra’s percussion instruments to run the gauntlet with in seconds flat. With vibraphone, gong, timpani and what sounds like bowed bells, she scurries uneasily with accompaniment from guests Max Christie on clarinet, Mary-Katherine Finch on cello, Gabriel Radford on French horn and Stephen Tam on flute. A section with what appears to be simulated applause, a series of long, bustling passages and then a lot of Messienesque birdsong against that bustle eventually winds down and bows out with a squeak. The group’s first commission, Andrew Staniland’s Adventuremusic: Love Her Madly is not a Doors cover but rather a hypnotic, low overtone-driven soundscape colored with rapidfire piano cascades, an Asian theme played on bells and a trancey woodblock solo. The album concludes with Frederic Rzewski’s Bring Them Home, one of his protest songs from the early 70s, this one based on a minor-key Irish folk song. In typical Rzewski fashion, the variations go pretty far afield of the original, with a boogie about a quarter of the way in and a hint of a military march about two-thirds through it. It’s unusually imagistic: Huang gets the motif de resistance, a woodblock solo that snidely mimics an earlier, martial snare drum passage. With wars still going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s nice to see this piece getting aired out as vigorously as Toca Loca do it here. It’s out now on Henceforth.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment