Geoff Berner – [Album]

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

To all good things, an end must come and, for Geoff Berner, Klezmer Mongrels marks the conclusion of a three-year journey that has found him winning audiences in the most unlikely of ways. Immediately after unveiling his unique brand of punk-looking, trad-informed music on We Shall No Flag Or Fail, We Shall Go On To The End, singer/accordionist Berner began work on what he purported to be a grand and far-reaching klezmer opus. Klezmer, for the unfamiliar, is a secular “musical tradition” that first developed in Southeastern Europe alongside Roma, Greek, Romanian, Turkish and Ukrainian music and which “parallels Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism” according to wikipedia. Anyway, 2005’s Whiskey Rabbi was the first installment in Berner’s “klezmer trilogy” and found the singer drawing together all of the basic ingredients he’d need for a genuine-article aural experience and theatrical presentation: fierce and marvelously over-the-top vocal turns bolstered by thematic clichés and style-specific instrumentation, dramatic shifts that had a propensity to overtake tracks before being completely abandoned and all of it offered with a stage smirk that listeners couldn’t miss but was never overtly revealed either. Released in 2007, The Wedding Dance Of The Widow Bride represented the exciting second act and upped the stakes by not only offering great, catchy songs, but still driving the plot with a clearly envisioned direction in mind. Now, Klezmer Mongrels appears as the third and final act in the series and ties up the loose ends left by Widow Bride and – while it doesn’t have a fraction of the storytelling ability that its predecessor did – is the best in the series from a pop songwriting standpoint and offers a pretty decent denouement as a result.

Are all of these things apparent right from the get-go? Not really. The album opens with the appropriately bleak “Shut In” and gives listeners a hint at what Klezmer Mongrels has in store for them: not quite so speedy as the songs on Widow Bride, “Shut In” shoots for a more distinguished resignation as Berner croaks the song to life. The repetitive nature of the uncharacteristically thin song implies that the protagonist from the previous two records is not wearing domestic life particularly well as Berner’s accordion wheezes a little more than usual and Diona Davies’ violin whines stoically making it impossibly to miss the monotonous overtones and ennui of both the song and the daily life of the character it mirrors. “Shut In” simply drags itself along in this fashion and, were it not for the obviously non-rockist instrumentation that drives it, all but the most dogged of fans would be turned off but something baits listeners to bear with it; there’s something swelling under the moribund procession and wanting to find out what it is ends up being the hook here.

As soon as “Luck In Exile" kicks up using almost the exact same riffs but somehow managing to sound more spry, it becomes apparent that the preceding track was the end of the Widow Bride chapter; it’s as if the band themselves could not stand the monotony anymore and so spring forth with everything they’ve got into any direction that suits them. While the aforementioned storyline does get cursory glances in songs including “The Whiskey,” more commonly the proceedings pull away from anything so formal as that and concentrates on fluffy but good one-liners and stylistic stretching that never stops being clever, comic or interesting. “Half German Girlfriend,” for example, picks up the story long after the honeymoon is over and in the thick of child-rearing madness (incidentally, you’ll find an explanation for the album’s title there too) with begrudging fervor and our hero tries desperately to find a living in the underworld with both “The King Of The Gangsters” and the sort-of-calypso-esque ode to weed “No Tobacco.” That avenue fails quickly though, and soon this sordid tale’s protagonist finds himself auditioning for bands (“Play, Gypsy, Play”) and eventually sort of winning a consolation prize in “Authentic Klezmer Wedding Band” which, in any other sort of story might be viewed as something of a letdown but, realistically, for a story whose main character has always bragged about his impossibly good luck, such a tragic irony is only fitting and, in this context, is pretty satisfying; pop music has long been suffering from a surplus of storybook endings and there’s no chance that “Fukher” (the track that closes Klezmer Mongrels) could be mistaken for that.

“Fukher” is actually the sort of ending that fans who have been with Berner for a while could only pray for. For a musician that has gleefully gone against the grain since the moment he first appeared on a larger scale and won fans on the strength of his ability to do it; reveling in subversion along with him. Klezmer Mongrels is an excellent and satisfying end to Berner’s twisted tale in that way but, after four years of playing this out series of events, the album also represents the promise of a new beginning for Berner and that might be the most exciting aspect of Klezmer Mongrels – the story’s finished neatly here and has the added bonus of leaving listeners on the edge of their seats to see what the singer will do next.


Geoff Berner Online

Geoff Berner myspace


Klezmer Mongrels is available now on Amazon.

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