Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird
Partisans & Parasites
I first encountered Daniel Kahn's music from his participation in 'The Unternationale' project, a group comprised of avant-klezmer musicians with a penchant for punk and cabaret music. The Unternationale's 2008 CD was a multi-lingual affair, with songs alternating between lyrics sung in Yiddish, Russian, and English: often within the same song. Further, Kahn and his compatriots Psoy Korolenko and Oy Division dug deep into Jewish labor songs, Zionist history, and religious texts, skirting the very thin boundary between postmodern irony and heartfelt sincerity. A wink and a nod here, a wry smile there, The Unternationale's debut was post-hip and reveled in Jewish outsider status.
One could argue that Daniel Kahn's latest project, Partisans & Parasites, offers more of the same, but the punk-klezmer-cabaret shtick has been honed to a fine blade. Kahn serves up dollops of East European Jewish world-weariness, and his band The Painted Bird cooks up a frenzy. Expect plenty of Kahn's wheezing accordion, and killer clarinet and horn arrangements courtesy of Michael Winograd. Frank London, the trumpeter of Klezmatics fame, also sits in on a few numbers, and Psoy Korolenko returns to contribute vocals as well. You could be excused for being reminded of Tom Waits' eccentric cabaret albums; but while Kahn does not share the raspy, late-night croon of Waits, The Painted Bird flirts with similar shadowy soundscapes. If Slim Cessna's Auto Club ever converted to Judaism and hung out at the circus, this would be their shambolic offspring.
But let's turn to lyrical content, where Kahn indulges us in apocalyptic Ashkenazi tales. Partisans & Parasites begins with "Yosl Ber," the tale of a Jewish soldier drafted into the Czar's army, but deserts, claiming that "…sir, I am indeed a faithful soldier! that's why I ran away from the front! I hate the enemy so much, I don't even want to look him in the eye!" The title track "Parasites" is a very long exegesis on the life of Toxoplasma Gondii as it invades host after host after host. Kahn relishes describing the life of the parasite and its use of each of the hapless organisms it inhabits, and The Painted Bird join in wailing, "Now you are living as a parasite/Ain't it easy living as a parasite?/You can make a living off another's life/When you are living as a parasite." Winograd's clarinet is especially effective here, soaring above the klezmer breaks that punctuate each upcoming verse. Of course, one could take "Parasites" as one enormous analogy for some parts of the human condition, in all its guts and exploitation. High marks must go for "Khurbn Katrina," a song that Kahn and his compatriots adapted from early 1900s Yiddish tunes, one of which memorialized the sinking of the Titanic. The Painted Bird cross Jewish melodies with New Orleans funeral band music, making for a memorable tribute to the ruin of the hurricane.
Kahn also serves up Kurt Tucholsky's 1931 "Embrace the Fascists" which slyly suggests not rocking the Nazi boat, while simultaneously undercutting that sentiment by warning that to give in to the Fascists would be ones' own fault. Another example of gallows humor surfaces on the spoken tale "A Rothschild In Your House": "A Jew goes to the Jewish cemetery in Paris/goes to see Rothschild's grave, with a beautiful gigantic monument./The Jew looks at the grave and says to his friend,/'see, Yankl? That's living!'"
For sheer chutzpah and controversy, however, probably nothing competes with "Six Million Germans," Kahn's recounting of Abba Kovner's endeavor to kill six million Germans in retaliation for the Holocaust. Kovner was a partisan from Vilna, the capital of Lithuania where Jews organized against the Nazis. Kahn details Kovner's plan to poison the water supply, from his trip to Tel Aviv, to his arrest by the British navy on the way back to Vilna. Some of the poison eventually ended up in bread served to SS prisoners. Kovner, though, became active and worked towards building Israel. Kahn presents Kovner's story as a cautionary tale, acknowledging the rage that Kovner and his compatriots felt at the genocide of WWII, the all-encompassing power of seeking revenge. Can revenge arise again? Should it? Kahn encourages the listener to "Six Million Germans" to tread carefully. Still, I can't imagine what the reaction to this song might be in Germany, where Partisans & Parasites was partly recorded.
Political, thought-provoking, and not afraid to stir up ghosts, Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird's Partisans & Parasites offers up challenging avant-klezmer that confronts the beauty, horror, and wit of being human. - Lee Blackstone
Listen to "A Rothschild In Your House"
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