Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird

The Broken Tongue

Oriente RIEN CD 73


Full Price

Originally published in Songlines.

The much talked about Yiddish revival has one of its most eloquent advocates in the American accordionist and Berlin resident, Daniel Kahn. He is both a long-standing member of party kings Rotfront and a key player on one of the best Jewish records in years – 2008’s The First Unternational alongside Psoy Korolenko and Oy Division – and between these two sits his own band, The Painted Bird. The album opens with an echoing, windswept statement of intent: Kahn likes radical political history alongside his klezmer instrumentation, and with the muted trumpet, drunken clarinet and violin of Beyze Vintn, the listener is immediately thrust into a moody, cinematic soundscape of clandestine political meetings of Bundists and fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. Musically, Kahn has no time for the overly polished school of weepy klezmer shmalz, which can only be a good thing. Instead, Tom Waits harmonies and Brechtian cabaret rules: accordions crunch, clarinets squeal and the band sing in rowdy unison as if their lives depend on it. Lyrically half the repertoire comes from Yiddish poetry – Itsik Manger, Mani Leib, Avrom Reisen – with alternate verses in English courtesy of Kahn’s excellent translations. “Grab yourself a bottle while you still can swallow / You wont cop a single drop in the world to follow” he sings on the Lubavitch song Yesterday Is Buried, and the band’s scrape along in rambunctious style, creating a swirling undercurrent of dark, euphoric humour under the singer’s voice. It’s no easy listening – several songs, like Birch Meadow/Birkenau take on the Holocaust and pull no punches – but whatever you think of the provocative feel, it is about time an artist in Europe stripped klezmer of its soupy clichés and thrust it back into its gritty, lyrical Yiddish context. A striking, powerful debut.

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