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The Zeitgeist Beckons

Vagabond Opera

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Recensione album

Back in the '70s there was a ripple in the underground music scene called new vaudeville, mainly a catchall for bands that played ukuleles, or sang cabaret-type tunes with a dark, ironic edge. The genre never expanded beyond a few artists with cult followings, and in 2009 the term is still bandied about for any group with a theatrical presentation, from the Tiger Lilies to Bill Irwin and, yes, Vagabond Opera. The Portland, OR-based sextet adds faux opera to the blend of cabaret, burlesque, tango, Balkan beats, klezmer, rock, Arab music, and classic pop. The band's songbook is divided between dark original tunes and covers of material written by Jacques Brel, Tom Waits, Raymond Scott, and Edith Piaf, who admittedly didn't write "Milord," but she made it a worldwide hit. The Zeitgeist Beckons — subtitled "An Opera in Four Acts, Maybe Even Five" — is their fourth album on their own VO label and, like the others, it's a dazzling smorgasbord of flavors. This band will knock your socks off even without the visual element, and the players are in fine form from start to finish. "Chimaeras Be Met" borrows its Italian lyric from Arturo Colautti's opera Fedora, but the music is a jumpin' jive tune composed by bassist Jason Flores. Chanteuse Lesley Kernochan delivers a dramatic tongue-in-cheek vocal complemented by Eric Stern's fine piano work. "Welcome to the Opera" interpolates bits from Verdi's Traviata into its Spike Jones-like mash-up of styles to introduce the show. "Farewell Kabarista" is a tribute to the Jewish entertainers who fled Germany to relocate in America. It avoids sentimentality and manages to mix drama and humor in equal measure. The band's take on '40s European pop is impressive. "Ganef" is a jazzy portrait of a jewel thief and his moll, sung by Kernochan as said moll. It's a swooning melody full of dark humor. "The Party" is a grim tango with a vocal processed to sound like it's coming out of a '20s radio. Then the band jumps in with a delirious Russian folk dance played with a crazed energy that brings to mind an acoustic Gogol Bordello. "Goodnight Moon" features the Portland Cello Project backing an over the top theatrical tune that sounds like Brecht on belladonna. The covers include a dramatic reading of Piaf's "Milord," a Shostakovich melody played as a tango, a Bulgarian Gypsy folk song with a horn section that tips its hat to Duke Ellington, Brel's "Amsterdam" sung as an aria from an unknown opera, and Raymond Scott's "New Year's Eve in a Haunted House" taken at breakneck speed. Vagabond Opera range far and wide here, but every tune is marked by top-notch musicianship, a dedication to the craft of songwriting, and great respect for the material they cover. ~ j. poet, Rovi

The Zeitgeist Beckons, Vagabond Opera
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