Daniel Kahn & Painted Bird / Bad Old Songs

Album cover: how to achieve the lithograph effect to good effect!

Daniel Kahn & Painted Bird
Bad Old Songs, 2012
Oriente Musik, RIEN CD 84

CD and MP3s available from Oriente Musik
For more info, contact them via email

I'm not the first person to compare Daniel Kahn to Leonard Cohen or Brecht. And, in fact, this latest collection of poetry worth reading, set to music and played by an impeccable able band brings Jewish Punk Cabaret into the current year, includes Cohen's "Story of Isaac." Other songs are similarly mostly sad, depressed. The world is still unredeemed.

True to form, other songs are old Yiddish songs from the archives—the opening, "A Meydl from Berlin." Kahn's own title song reflects on the changes since the fall of the Wall as ideology seems to be replaced by souvenir stands. He follows up with "The Old Songs" and delivers the coup de grace with a song from Heinrich Heine (set to music by Schumann!), "The bad old songs." One could sense a theme.

do you know why the coffin
should be so great & heavy?
I sink with it all my love
& all of my woe.

As usual in Kahn's albums, there is more depth and more substance. There is more to the message than mere ennui. Yet, I also think that this particular CD is touched both by the death of Adrienne Cooper in 2011, and of Kahn's own father the year before. This is specifically noted in the intro to "The Marriage Hearst/Umet Umetum." Jake Shulman-Ment's instrumental captures the grief, and Kahn's Yiddish explicitly addresses the pain:

… but my sorry, gray & crooked, anchors me to the ground
the horse has driven me, the ground is cold & mute
I am orphaned & homeless. & winter comes, the sky turns gray.
& time is a bottle, emptied of win, with sorry everywhere.

As a final note I have to recall the joy of watching the band live a few months ago at the Boston Jewish Music Festival. The message may appear to be grim. The band may seem to take perverse pleasure in the ongoing need to fight a losing battle. But the resurgence of punk cabaret, often set in a language, Yiddish, whose death has frequently been declared, and yet which continues to give life to new generations or malcontents, political activists, and lovers, is its own message. Despite it all, …

Olaria Olara / snow is falling / la-di-da
snow is falling on the ground & I am dreaming
… everyone is going round & round together
& my girl is full of happiness & love … Olaria Olara

And, whether decrying a former friend turned zealot in Israel, or political discord elsewhere around the world, Kahn's music is ultimately a tonic, a declaration that we're not in this alone, but that we're also in the struggle because that's what we do. Not a bad bit of fun for the price of some plastic or an mp3 download. Take two and see you keeping the push for change alive.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 29 July 2013

Personnel this recording:
Daniel Kahn: voice, accordion, guitar, piano, organ, uke
Jake Shulman-Ment: violin
Michael Tuttle: bass
Hampus Melin: drums

Song Titles

  1. A Meydl from Berlin (trad, Eng. & arr. D. Kahn) 3:58
  2. Love lays low (Daniel Kahn) 3:05
  3. Good old bad old days (Daniel Kahn) 5:40
  4. Die alten lieder (music & German: Franz Josef Degenhardt; Yiddish & English: Daniel Kahn) 3:32
  5. Groys Dasad (trad., arr. D. Kahn) 3:49
  6. Story of Isaac (Leonard Cohen; arr. D. Kahn & J. Shulman-Ment) 3:38
  7. Godbrother (Daniel Kahn) 3:45
  8. The marriage hearse/Umet Umetum (music: Jake Shulman-Ment/words: D. Kahn; music: M. Winograd) 5:28
  9. Die alten bösen lieder (words: H. Heine; music: R. Schumann; arr: D. Kahn) 4:03
  10. Olaria olara (music & original Greek: Dionysis Savvopoulos; Eng: D. Kahn) 2:40

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