Vancouver singer/songwriter Geoff Berner’s profile has risen in recent years thanks to his strikingly original records and relentless touring. These tours have spread the word about Berner’s notorious live act, which is a whiskey-soaked cabaret of observational humor, audience participation, and full-throttle klezmer punk music. Berner’s records provide a more lucid document of his artistic evolution from accordion-wielding punk rocker to sardonic songwriter, whose sound is now firmly rooted in the traditional klezmer music of his Eastern European ancestors. Berner’s last record, Whiskey Rabbi, signaled this shift toward the more traditional aspects of his sound. His new record, The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride, further cements this transition. Berner recently stated that his goal is, “to drag klezmer music kicking and screaming back into the bars”; these nine songs, which are brimming with sardonic wit, poignant melancholia, and abrasive musicality, attest to the considerable progress Berner has already made with respect to that goal.
The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride is ostensibly a concept album, with the majority of tracks focusing on aspects of the traditional marriage celebration (luck, the bride, inter-family disputes) and the music heavily influenced by traditional klezmer wedding music. In less skilled hands, this concept could easily have become tedious over the course of an entire record. For Berner and company, however, this original concept provides material for six standout tracks that easily compensate for three less satisfying efforts. This success is attributable in part to the remarkable rapport among the musicians. Berner’s voice and accordion playing are in fine form on this outing, and longtime collaborators Diona Davies (Po’ Girl) on violin and Wayne Adams (Zolty Cracker) on percussion join together to create a Klezmer Punk juggernaut. Davies violin dips and soars with intuitive grace and Adams’s imaginative and unorthodox percussion style is well suited to Berner’s less conventional compositions. On this record, the three musicians form a unit that is noticeably more cohesive than in the past; their efforts create ideal instrumental settings for Berner’s lyrics, which cannot help but be the focus of the record.
On the lyrical level, the jewel of the record must be the second track, “Weep, Bride, Weep”. This six-minute epic, which plays on the tradition that calls for the wedding band to attempt to make the bride cry, steadily builds up the tension as Berner presents successive verses that are as astute as they are biting. Take the second verse, in which Berner addresses the subject of the bride’s husband: “He’s a closeted ... Marxist who thinks that marriage is state prostitution / So sometimes you’ll have to fuck him just to get him to shut up and go to sleep.” With the mournful accordion and violin parts, and the titular refrain weaving in and out of the lines, the musicians ratcheted up the tension until Berner sees fit to release his hold on the listener with a suitably shocking conclusion.
While humorous cuts like this, and the opener “Good Luck Now” stand out, this record has more to offer than Berner’s mordant wit. There are several up-tempo songs that offer a more abrasive aesthetic, along with others that present a more somber, contemplative mood. On “Widow Bride”, for example, Berner delivers three verses that explore different aspects of the titular concept. The third verse really exemplifies the qualities that set Berner apart from the majority of his peers: After a rousing instrumental breakdown, Berner turns the concept into a metaphorical idea in order to explore the issue of colonialism. “My great-grandfather was seduced / by Victoria, and the language that she used”, he sings, before recounting the manner in which his ancestor was mislead with respect to the “virgin lands” that had purportedly been available for settlement in Saskatchewan. It is a sharp twist that clarifies the deceit that had Berner alludes to in the first two verses. Deception is a theme that abounds on this record both in more obvious forms, such as on the sublime narrative “Traitor Bride”, and in more subtle allusions to the nature of marriage and the machinations that often surround that social contract. It is not a stretch to recall the weeping bride of the second track when Berner somberly intones that “he was pressed into service against his will” in reference to the traitor bride’s groom.
Queen Victoria is the focus of the subsequent track, which is named for her. This abrasive number often threatens to devolve into a rant, but Berner avoids this pitfall with lines like, “Queen Victoria, I’m not much nourished by modern love”, that lend a certain pathos to the song’s backside. This breathless monologue is punctuated by accordion belches and Adams’ unorthodox percussion parts. The ambiance is maintained by “The Fiddler is a Very Good Woman”, Berner’s manic tribute to Davies, his talented lesbian fiddler. As the instruments race around at a break-neck pace, Berner recounts Davies’ story with salacious couplets like “The gypsy girl took her to her husband’s grave / and then she kissed her THERE”. These two tracks ultimately represent a surprisingly listenable achievement that reflects back upon the themes (self-deceit, excess in celebration, fetish-like obsessions with remote figureheads) alluded to on earlier tracks.
Unfortunately, The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride loses a bit of momentum with its final three original songs, which are simply not on the level of the first six. Still, those half-dozen standouts are enough to solidify Berner’s reputation as a uniquely talented songwriter and masterful entertainer. His sardonic wit remains as sharp as ever and his profound appreciation for traditional klezmer music has clearly enriched his distinctive sound. The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride will undoubtedly win Berner his far share of new fans and make him an early favorite for a prime position on critics’ “Best of 2007” lists.