Geoff Berner – We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians (Coax)
Do the horrors of the world make any form of distraction inevitably dishonest? Or is the only way to deal with said horrors to embrace escapism and indulge in hedonism? As Tom Mulcair might say: False choice. Geoff Berner, a.k.a. the Whiskey Rabbi, is here to tell you that there is another way.
Berner—an accordionist, novelist and brilliant satirist—is not one to ever shy away from uncomfortable, or even upsetting, subject matter. You might even say he delights in this. But the Vancouver songwriter is also capable of making you laugh through your tears, while he and his band tear through raucous klezmer punk and acerbic folk songs, arranged with incongruously elegant flair by Montreal polyglot producer Socalled (who also helmed Berner’s last record, 2011’s Victory Party). Berner and Socalled are surrounded by top-notch players: violinists Diona Davies and Brigitte Dajczer, clarinetist Michael Winograd, bassist Keith Rose and longtime drummer Wayne Adams, who has never sounded better than he does here.
Berner’s whole mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted—a job that used to belong to journalists. He spares no scorn on the album’s mission statement, “Dance and Celebrate” (which you can stream only in the right column of his website): “Let’s dance and celebrate the misfortunes of people we hate … Schadenfreude needs no translation / so I guess I’ll take it as a reparation / out on a date / where we’ll dance and celebrate.” There’s a particularly catchy and biting bridge on that song, skewering Stephen Harper and Ariel Sharon, which Berner probably wrote to bait Bill C-51. Later, on "Thank You No Thank You," Berner lambastes politicians who claim to be “friends of Israel”—and he’s happy to name names—as a way to either mask Islamophobia or a way to facilitate a Holy War that will result in the Second Coming (not, as one might hope, a fringe belief in the U.S.). Naturally, this is not your typical wedding band fare.
Thankfully, Berner doesn’t write knee-jerk screeds; his outrage is hardly an extension of an angry not-so-young man’s arrested adolescence. He takes on Benjamin Netanyahu because he finds the Israeli PM an embarrassment to Judaism, a culture Berner celebrates as often as he satirizes; he takes on the mayor of Vancouver because the city’s endless embrace of condo developers is pricing Berner and his peers out of the hometown they love. The strength of his satire is his avoidance of obvious punchlines, his carefully considered analysis, and the ultra-rare ability to convey absurdity in atrocity.
He’s not immune to the simple pleasures that make life worth living: two other key (and wordy) titles here are “I Don’t Feel So Mad At God When I See You in Your Summer Dress,” and “When DD Gets Her Donkey Everything Will Be All Right.” They’re also the catchiest melodies here, of course, perhaps not coincidentally because they’re the only tracks that are remotely hopeful.
Geoff Berner doesn’t want to make nice background music that everybody likes. He’d be happy sending half of any given audience storming out the door in indignation, for reasons either political or musical, and carousing all night with those that remain. Geoff Berner’s music is meant to stir your blood, meant to make you feel alive and present in a world of horrible contradictions, to make you raise a glass and embrace your neighbour and try to make some semblance of sense of it all.
What more could you possibly want from a record?
Download: "Dance and Celebrate," "Thank You No Thank You," "I Don’t Feel So Mad at God When I See You In Your Summer Dress"