Ben Z. Mund Photography
Over the last few years a number of bands, ranging from Brooklyn-based punk rock outfit Golem to indie stalwart Beirut, have found inspiration in the diverse sounds of Eastern European music. Just as 19-century Romani lăutari musicians mixed peasant songs with ceremonial Byzantine church songs, Turkish folk songs and klezmer, these bands take an eclectic approach to songwriting. On Vagabond Opera’s recently released fourth album, “Sing For Your Lives!” classically trained singers Eric Stern and Robin Jackson have added opera, cabaret and swing to an already fertile mix.
“Sing” is a hallucinatory experience evocative of the Polish-Jewish surrealist Bruno Schulz. Though it isn’t a concept album, one would be forgiven for thinking there is an embedded story to be extracted. On the opening track, “Red Balloon,” Stern dictates over slow syncopated strings a story about a dissolved romance and a man searching for his loved one in a red balloon. The summary doesn’t do the language justice. The lyrics are embellished and outlandish, evocative of musical theater. Stern’s voice is exaggerated and buoyant, almost ridiculous. “1873,” he says, and you can hardly believe this is serious, “Dr. Xander Gerrymander ascended the heavens in his marvelous red balloon. / There, to ponder the cosmic verities, sail above the blue and see the stars.”