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Review: Geoff Berner, Victory Party

Geoff Berner
Victory Party
[Mint Records (2011)]

Taking inspiration from Celtic-punk heroes Shane MacGowan and the Pogues and the Gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello, Geoff Berner has brought punk to Klezmer. Nowhere else could you hear songs about giants made of mud (“Oh my Golem!) or about Rabbis (Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His). Well, maybe from NoFX.

First, the good. Victory Party takes the traditional format of Klezmer and updates the sound with an infusion of raunchy good times without losing the mournful elegance of Jewish sound. “Daloy Polizei” adopts a bit of one of hip-hop’s most controversial songs (NWA’s “F— tha Police”) and puts it to a classic Klezmer tune. The result is masterful. The vitality of Klezmer—ample and intrinsic—is boosted and magnified by the new aesthetic.

“Mayn Rue Platz” is a beautiful tune, poetic and simple. There’s no update here, and it frankly isn’t needed. Not every song has the punk edge, and that’s probably a smart move. Updating the world doesn’t require tearing every wall down; some of them have history of their own. Taking a Yiddish poem (by Morris Rosenfield) and putting it to a tune is the kind of veneration of his origin that makes Mr. Berner so compelling. And yet … could there still be more?

With the exception of “Rabbi Berner…,” the anger and drive of punk (from a self-identified punk) is suspiciously absent. Punk is usually power chords and screaming, spiked hair and dog collars. There is a feel and a look and a sound that goes along with the politics and the opinions. Geoff Berner has the mind and the soul of a punk, but the sounds coming from the speakers is Klezmer with an edge. The edge is awesome, don’t be mistaken, but is it punk?

Maybe yes, maybe no. It might not necessarily be important for enjoying the music, but for fans of folk-punk mash-ups and Klezmer, figuring out the answer to this question is a challenge and invitation that should be accepted. Because Victory Party and Geoff Berner deserve it.

—Mike Tager (Baltimore, MD)

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