“There was a doctor, there was a teacher, but the doctor didn’t care about illness, and the teacher didn’t care about teaching,” Charming Hostess frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg sang, to open her radical circus rock band’s final album, The Ginzburg Geographies. In the context of 2022, the irony could not be more crushing.
Eisenberg died on 3/11 last year, four months after the Covid shot rollout. She’d been in precarious health for quite some time before. Nonetheless, the indomitable singer and musical polymath had continued to perform and work on a vast series of projects right up until the 2020 lockdown. It’s something of a miracle that she got as far as she did with the album, which her bandmates finished without her last year.
It’s collection of wildly original arrangements of Italian protest songs, an exploration of the territory that nurtured and eventually destroyed the marriage between World War II-era Italian antifascist activists and writers Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, Hounded and pursued by axis forces, the two managed to evade and outlive Mussolini, but Leone was murdered by the Nazis. His widow would go on to serve in the Italian parliament in the decades after the war.
If you count their college days, Charming Hostess enjoyed a career that lasted almost thirty years, on and off. They went through many incarnations, from proto Gogol Bordello punk to feminist klezmer. Here, they do a strikingly faithful evocation of an anarchic Italian street band from seventy years ago, while also putting their own spin on retro 70s Italian film music in a Tredici Bacci vein . Eisenberg took several of the couple’s texts and used them to create a playlist of brooding, accordion-fueled psychedelia, oom-pah blue-collar protest songs and skittishly subversive bedroom pop. A girl protests against household drudgery, over a swaying, accordion-fueled backdrop. “Authority has no value,” Eisenberg reminds. Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood jangles through some heartbreakingly beautiful interludes behind Eisenberg’s delicate multitracks. Much of this is on the phantasmagorical side, which makes plenty of sense considering the context. There’s also a ramshackle, bluegrass-flavored cover of a classic Woody Guthrie antifascist song.
The best number on the album is La Situazione, a slinky, shuffling, distantly creepy psychedelic rock shuffle fueled by Dan Cantrell’s roller-rink organ. The gist of Leone’s text is that it is Italians’ duty not to give in to alarmism and instead to dig in and fight while the Nazis roll into Rome. You want prophetic?
Eisenberg was outrageously funny, earthy and sometimes combative. Yet that feisty persona was a manifestation of her deeply liberational Jewish spirituality. She wrote film and theatre music, took a plunge into Babylonian mysticism and late in her career revisited her inner soul and blues sirens: she was a lot of those. Eisenberg didn’t just think outside the box: that box existed only as a target for her surrealist wit…or to be destroyed. How cruel that we’ll never know what else she might have had up her sleeve.