Music
1:57 pm
Tue June 3, 2014

Golem Ain't Your Grandparents' Klezmer

Originally published on Tue June 3, 2014 2:00 pm

The New York City band Golem describe their music as punk-klezmer. Music critic Milo Miles says that on the group's new album, Tanz, they mange to find new ways to balance urban irreverence with folk tradition.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The New York City band Golem described their music as punk klezmer. Music critic Milo Miles says that on the group's new album "Tanz," they managed to find new ways to balance urban irreverence with folk tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

GOLEM: (Singing) Roll the tape. (Singing in foreign language).

MILO MILES: In the 1970s, when the American music market was fascinated by roots, the Eastern European mix of styles known as klezmer awoke from a 50 year sleep. Klezmer was meant to be party music, for dancing all night at Jewish weddings. But revival klezmer had a careful preservationist atmosphere. And no matter how expertly done, a party designed by your grandparents can't be all that exciting. The New York band Golem has spent 14 years injecting punk attitude into the Klezmer cadences. They are persistently funny, irreverent, varied in subject matter, and at one moment heartbroken, the next deranged. Golem have put together their tightest program on their fourth album "Tanz." The title track that offers an irresistible command to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TANZ")

GOLEM: (Singing) Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance, dance, dance. Dance. You could be the last woman. And maybe no more men. There may be no tomorrow. We got through Yesterday. You could be the last woman. There may be no more men. There may be no tomorrow. We got through yesterday. So let's dance.

MILES: Golem does not feature a clarinet, the traditional lead horn in klezmer. "Tanz" presents Jeremy Brown on violin and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone. Plus, some wiggly guest guitar from Brandon Seabrook. All of them emphasizing the chattering quality in their up-tempo solos. But while Golem can wham you from the stage, parts of earlier studio work sounded distant, even anemic. New producer Tony Maimone to the rescue. Finally, Golem sounds electric, till they play acoustic. As full of beams and tiers as they need to be. Here is singer Aaron Diskin explaining how he talks to animals and people in different languages.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HORSE")

GOLEM: (Singing) With my dog, I speak in Russian. See? (Russian spoken) With my cat, I speak in Polish. Kitty, kitty, kitty. But with my faithful horse, I speak (foreign language spoken). Unlike all other men, my horse is a firebrand. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. With my children, I speak English. Go clean your room, you brats.

MILES: It's clear Diskin can deliver comic relief, but he also relishes the sardonic spin of a trickster narrator. The song "Poletim" suggests a whacky B-movie airplane hijack caper. The Jewish perpetrators screw up the crime. The pilot screws up where they want to go. Everybody ends up in Siberia. You're amazed to find it is a cover of a tune by the Russian saloon singer Arkady Severny and based on true events. The lyrics are co-translated by singer Annette Ezekial Kogan, who also writes most of the words for the band's original songs. She is the sly star of Golem. Here she blends an obsessive lover with an overly protective mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLETIM")

GOLEM: (Singing) Don't you catch a cold, I want you to get very old. Button up your overcoat when you're on a boat. Put on your seatbelt 'cause you make my heart melt. Watch when you cross the street, don't forget to eat. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. All the time.

MILES: But that isn't her most ingenious mixture of moods. That would be the brooding mikvah bath, about the ritual cleansing of a bride before an arranged wedding. Here Kogan finds the sweet spot right between rote ceremony and the intrigue of a mystery assignation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIKVAH BATH")

GOLEM: (Singing) Up to my shoulders in the water. Washing every hair before I wed. A mikvah bath will purify me, before I lie down in my wedding bed. Will he close his eyes before we kiss? Will he run his fingers through my hair? Will he undress in the other room or watch as I say the evening prayer?

MILES: However, the performance entente is Miskayt, a duet by Diskin and Kogan that's a playlet in song. Two uglys meet - features of each other, then notice that he smells lovely and she has a great figure and love conquers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISKAYT")

GOLEM: (Singing) She was a miskayt. Someone so ugly you could cry. A miskayt, someone you pray will pass you by. He was a miskayt, a mother's love, the rest are lies. Oh, such a miskayt, a grotesque before my eyes. Her eyes were crossed, her hair a frizzy mess.

MILES: Listening to these capers, you think how apt the name Golem is. It refers to the legend of a clay humanoid, brought to life to defend the Jewish ghetto of 17th century Prague. A wild, even depraved creature with a warm heart, offbeat and charming as Golem the band.

DAVIES: Music critic Milo Miles reviewed "Tanz," the new album from the punk klezmer band Golem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE YOU ALL THE TIME")

GOLEM: (Singing) Always stand up straight, try not to be late. Lather on the sunscreen, easy on the caffeine. Don't mix your alcohol, don't smoke menthols. Stay away from doctors, and helicopters. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time. I love you all the time, all the time.

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE YOU ALL THE TIME")

GOLEM: (Singing) I always think the worst, if you're not home first. Scared if I'm knocked down, somewhere in this big town. If you're not feeling fab, then please take a cab. 'Cause I don't know what I'd do, if I didn't have you. I love all the time. I love you all the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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