Feature Review: Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, Lost Causes

Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird
Lost Causes
[Orient Music (2011)]

While many artists in Klezmer (and folk music generally) are concerned with preserving the past, Daniel Kahn seems determined to bend it to his will.

The 13-song set on Lost Causes includes Kahn’s own extraordinary originals, some “traditional” material (“Arbetslozer Marsh [March of the Jobless Corps]”), and the mid-20th Century German showtune by Bertold Brecht, “Denn woven Lebt der Mench? [What Sustains the Life of Men?]”:

The music is variously messy, loud, contemplative, beautiful, and hyper; the lyrics are in German, Yiddish, and English, often dancing from one language to another in the same song. The visual imagery of the words and music are evocative of the black-and-white movie landscapes of second world war films and the gray rainy Berlin streetscape of Wings of Desire, but then sheer level of noise brought by the horns and Kahn’s accordion put you squarely in a chair in a crowded cabaret with the walls painted bright red and turquoise; you have to shout to your dinner date while visitors from half the nations of Europe chatter away beside you. Your waiter is from Russia and doesn’t speak German or English very well. Then you give up on conversation because the band started playing “Avreml der Marvikher” and you think you’re catching more of the Yiddish than you thought possible before you realize it’s been translated into English.

Kahn’s voice has the punk intensity of Shane McGowan on the raucous pieces, but he seems just as happy to break out a more laid-back and “clean” singer-songwriter style on the closer, “A Miller’s Tears.” Then sometimes he just talks with you, too, as he does on the show stopper “Inner Emigration.” In it he tells the stories of several people who choose not to leave their homelands in times of distress, like that of a cabaret singer in Berlin in the early 1930s who decides not to flee with her lover to the Ukraine, and a Russian who doesn’t want to uproot himself to head to the newly-founded state of Israel. But by the end of the song, he’s metamorphosed the ideas of “homeland” and “emigration” into a half dozen different meanings. Without exaggeration, it’s some of the best songwriting I’ve ever come across; here’s the final third of the song in its entirety:

Anat was a Sabra, the daughter of a Sphardic Kibbutznik nurse & a Yekke lawyer from Bonn. She fell in love with Kais, born in a PLO refugee camp in southern Lebanon. They married in Cyprus. He albost got arrested living with her family in Ramat Gan, so she tried wrapping her hair & serving coffee with his family in Hebron but that didn’t work either. Then they thought about leaving to live with her cousin David in Brooklyn but he & his boyfriend Patrick wanted to get married & were moving to Berlin. So she went to the Jaffa beach & stared at the sea & thought about how someday all of this would pass, if only she could find someone to help Kais pass.

Should she make an inner emigration? Tell me what you think she should decide. Considering the couple’s situation she’d be better off as someone else’s bride. She & he comprise a kind of nation, the kind we build inside when we’re alone. But if they just make inner emigrations, then they’ll only have a home when they’re at home.

Compare yourself. What does this all have to do with you? How does your experience ring true? You’re where, yourself? You aren’t suffering anyone’s regime. You’re free to follow every little dream. Be fair to yourself. You needn’t be oppressed to feel alone. You don’t have to be driven from your home to spare yourself from feeling like a part of the control with an internal diplomatic role. Make a kind of inner emigration: It’s a kind of shift accomplished easily. We all have made our disassociation, whether on the job or in our family. What could be more irrelevant than nations, when everywhere you go it’s buy or sell? But if we make only inner emigrations, then everything will only go to hell.

I can’t recommend this record highly enough.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)


2 comments on “Feature Review: Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, Lost Causes

  1. Can’t think of a more thankless yet necessary piece of work to discuss. Thanks for having the guts and empathy to follow through. Hope the discussion of this material continues. Emess.

  2. […] really amazing acoustic and horn-driven release from a German songwriter with a lot of Klezmer influence, Daniel […]

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