This new record has a song about slavery. another about the joys of being out and gay in an oppressive society, one about the murder of an innocent immigrant, along with a pretty wild drinking song, a bunch of dance numbers and a handful of dirges. Pretty relevant stuff, right? Is this hip-hop? Blues? New wave? None of the above. It’s the new Klezmatics album, Apikorsom/Heretics, streaming at Spotify. And it’s one of the best releases of 2016.
The Klezmatics are the Clash of klezmer. Back in the 80s, the Clash were the one punk band that pretty much everybody knew and loved, and the Klezmatics were their Jewish folk-punk counterparts – although their musicianship was always a cut above even the most talented punk rock band. There have been plenty of other innovators in traditional Jewish music from around the world, but most – Dave Tarras, Manny Blanc and Prince Nazaroff, noteworthy among them – edged toward jazz. The Klezmatics, on the other hand, brought the transgressive energy of punk to a vast legacy of global Jewish sounds, and vice versa. The new album only further cements their reputation as innovators and instigators, a band whose influence long ago reached far beyond the klezmer demimonde. It’s safe to say that without the Klezmatics, there probably would be no Gogol Bordello and probably no World Inferno either.
The album opens on a trad note with Lisa Gutkin’s instrumental Der Geler Fink, her rapidfire violin against a suspensefully vamping pulse, then trumpeter Frank London and frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg lead the band off on a scampering tangent. London flips the script and clarinetist Matt Darriau follows suit, wary and soulful, before the band brings the lightning back.
Zol Shoy Komen di Guele is a swaying, elegant take on a midtempo oompah groove, a song of redemption and salvation. The band moves to elegantly waltzing, brooding Ladino territory with the bitterly metaphorical Der Yokh (The Yoke) originally recorded by Lluis Llach in 1968: “Although it’s rotten and rusty, it grips us like pliers,” Sklamberg intones in the original Catalan.
The traditional Party in Odessa follows a bounce that’s just short of frantic: It’s a funny song, a peasant gone wild in the big city: “The guy with no suspenders is the one who loses his pants,” more or less. The band ramps it up doublespeed at the end.
Dark Is the Night, a new original with music by London features stark violin against mournful washes of accordion punctuated by spare cimbalom. If John Lennon had grown up in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, he might have written something like this.The title track is another London original; Sklamberg delivering a homoerotic Yiddish lyric over a happy bouncing melody that’s part early Beatles, part joyous shtetl stomp, taking an abrupt, welcome detour into a minor-key romp livened by the trumpeter’s terse, muted attack. Darriau’s Three-Ring Sirba is next, a bittersweet waltz fueled by the composer’s enigmatically sailing clarinet.
The bolero-tinged Vi Lang, London’s adaptation of David Edelstadt’s poem Vakht Oyf! sets Sklamberg’s understatedly imploring vocals against an elegantly slinky backdrop lowlit by funereal organ and latin-flavored horns, up to an uneasily shadowy, psychedelic outro underpinned by London’s insistent piano and Richie Barshay’s tumbling drums. Likewise, Sklamberg’s arrangement of Chava Alberstein’s Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn? (Who Guides the Ships?) has a moody late Beatlesque resonance and a boomy Barshay bolero beat. Then the band picks it up with the lickety-split Shushan Purim, contemplating the hangover of all hangovers. In case you’re wondering how to say “blotto” in Yiddish, the word is “farshnoshket.”
Green Violin, a London instrumental, has a dramatic ba-BUMP bounce and delicious Middle Eastern chromatics. Der Mames Spigl (Mama’s Mirror), a minimalist dirge by Gutkin with lyrics by Masha Shtuker-Paiuk, grimly contemplates the ravages of age. Even grimmer is the swaying, ominously Turkish-flavored murder ballad Tayer Yankele (Poor Yankele), Paul Morrisett’s guitar steady as the whole band builds a haunted call-and-response. It’s the album’s most epic and arguably best number.
The band handles the traditional, chromatically fueled dance Shtetl MO with a bouncy restraint that explodes on the chorus and then builds to a lickety-split romp as the horns blaze. The album winds up with Mazltov, a tender folk-rock waltz. Over the decades, the Klezmatics have put out some great albums and this one is probably in the top three along with their 2011 Live at the Town Hall album and their iconic 1997 collection, Possessed. The band are currently on US tour; their next show is at the Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. in Berkeley, CA on Dec 21 at 8 PM. Advance tix are $28.