You can’t go wrong with “Ushti Ushti Baba”. Macedonia’s Koçani Orkestar released a terrific version of this song back in 2002, so when I saw that Golem (a group I’d never heard before) had decided to start its new album with a slightly retitled “Ushti Baba”, I rubbed my hands with anticipation.
It got better when I saw that the band’s publicity was promoting it as “a six-piece Eastern European folk punk band” from the States. A punk “Ushti Baba” yawping with slop and sweat would make an excellent change from the precision of the native Romani bands that we usually hear performing these traditional songs. The precision is a thrill, but there’s something to be said for giving the old music a kick and a shake. Any band being advertised as “Eastern European folk punk” nowadays is inviting comparisons with self-styled Ukrainian-American Gypsy punk Eugene Hutz—would Golem sound like Gogol Bordello?
Well, no, as it turns out, it doesn’t. The music shows a stricter fidelity to the actual songs of the region while Gogol Bordello uses Eastern Europeanism as a kind of jumping-off point. Gogol Bordello is more rock than folk; Golem is more folk than rock. Punk is too strong a word for this album. The singers shout and wail, and the instruments sometimes leap into high gear, but their thrashing isn’t angry punk thrashing. They’re not rebels. When everybody roars together on the word “diregelt!” in “The Rent”, then it’s funny and exaggerated, not threatening. It’s a comedienne groaning oy vey! and rolling her eyes at the audience in mock anguish. The inability of the song’s narrators to pay their rent is not an occasion for social outrage or disaffection or even your basic snotty, punky teen angst.
To call a band punk suggests that it’s willing to sacrifice finesse for the sake of energy and on Fresh Off Boat there’s every sign that Golem means to keep hold of both. This “Ushti Baba” is looser than the Koçani Orkestar’s but it’s just as tuneful. The accordion is biting and jaunty and there are some tense moments between Aaron Diskin’s beseeching voice and Alicia Jo Rabins’ shivering violin. “Aven!” he sings. “Aven! Me phenjake aven!” (“My sister, my sister, they’re coming for my sister!”), and the violin jitters on a raw knife-point. You can’t listen to the exactness of the percussion stings in “Czardas” or Rabins’ controlled up-and-down wriggle in “Mazel” and think of them as punks.
When they go into a frenzy, as they do in “Golem Hora”, it’s all thanks to happy enthusiasm. Diskin sounds as if he’s having fun with his singing, and he does it with such openness that you have fun listening to him having fun. “What a cheerful man”, you think as he augments “Ushti Baba”‘s usual lyrics with cracks of mad laughter. “Oh, he has a sense of humour”, you realise during “Bublichki”, as he implores you sadly to, “buy my bagels, I’m starving on this street corner ... my father is a drunk ... my sister is a street walker, such a shame to my family ... and my little brother, he picks the pockets of hipsters on the L train.”
Both Diskin and the band’s founder Annette Ezekiel relish every word they sing, and this is one of the things that makes Fresh Off Boat an enjoyable album. The energy of the other musicians matches that of the singers. Rabins’ violin ranges from formal sweetness in the middle of “La Mariage”, to a twirling, romantic sadness draining into quietude at the end of “Klezmerke”, and the faster sawing of “Ushti Baba”. Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone has a drunken, fuzzy-bee character of its own. Tim Monaghan’s percussion is unobtrusive but essential. There’s not a tonne of innovation in the songs, but plenty of joy in the delivery.
Their Eastern European influences are filtered through a distinct American Jewish sensibility, with “Hava Nagila” being quoted extensively in “Golem Hora”, and bits of “di di di”-inflected singing sprinkled here and there. Not surprisingly, Golem is based in New York, the epicentre of the klezmer revival. If there’s one thing the albums from klezmer bands have been proving, it’s that one genre can spin successfully in dozens of different directions. We’ve had the klezmer-gospel crossover (The Klezmatics: Brother Moses Smote the Water), the klezmer-postrock social-conscience album (Black Ox Orkestar: Nisht Azoy), the klezmer-O Brother Where Art Thou team-up (Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys: self-titled), and even a klezmer-ocker anthem (Klezmania: “Oystralie!” taken from Oystralia, a recording less well fleshed than Fresh Off Boat, but made with a similar spirit). Call this one a klezmer party album. All its gusto is to the fore. Behind the gusto there’s a machinery of skill twirling away. They don’t harp on the skill, but it’s there if you want to take a look.