Because Beyond the Pale’s impressive new album Postcards comes with no liner notes, no explanation of where the music comes from, it invites listeners to find out for themselves. But that is not an easy task. Some tracks, like the tracks “Magura” and “Extra Spicy” that bookend the record sound like the sort of lighthearted fare one might have heard at Disney World’s Country Bear Jamboree had it been set in a Galician shtetl rather than a mythical American hinterland.
But others numbers, such as mandolinist Eric Stein’s “Split Decision” and violinist Aleksander Gajic’s “Back to the Beginning,” with their nods to jazz and classical music, undermine the downheymish vibe. And the Yiddish ballad “Doina,” beautifully rendered by Vira Lozinsky, may conjure an Eastern European homeland, but one that sounds far too grown-up in its melancholy to be fare suitable for the whole family.
Because Beyond the Pale is such a tight ensemble – the six members have been playing together for over a decade – Postcards sounds cohesive even at its most peripatetic. This is one case in which being all over the map is clearly not a musical weakness. And yet the difficulty of determining where the music comes from – not to mention when it comes from, which is just as important for work that does such a good job of invoking nostalgia for lost worlds – has the potential to rile listeners who seek a particular kind of fix, rather than a more diffuse cultural experience. Even as the continuity of instrumentation and execution gives the album a smooth, if heterogeneous, surface, the abrupt transition from one style to another stirs misgivings, not so much about Beyond the Pale in particular, as about the broader aesthetic sensibility that celebrates hybridization as an end in itself.
Since the music industry started to collapse, many of the walls that separated different idioms have given way. Frequently, though, those walls turn out to have been already riddled with termites. To be sure, developments like satellite radio and digital downloading let listeners choose the type of music they wish to listen to with much greater speed and precision than was possible when consumers had to rely on the airwaves and brick-and-mortar record stores. But the access to information about diverse forms of music has been steadily increasing for decades.
Between the expansion of public radio, the proliferation of free news weeklies and magazines, and New Wave filmmakers’ willingness to forego traditional dedicated scores for compositions, from classical to rock, that had been created for other purposes, the aftermath of the 1960s saw a rapid rise in the number of music lovers who were more committed to the eclecticism of their taste preferences than they were to any particular artist or genre. If we really want to make sense of what used to be called, with insouciant glee, “postmodernism,” we should pay more attention to this trend than the oversung scandals of the art world. The leading edge is only worthy of serious scrutiny when its followers are tightly ranked behind it.
What matters most in the cultural arena, at bottom, are the barely conscious decisions that consumers make about what does and doesn’t go together. Andy Warhold’s soup cans matter less as an act of provocation directed at collectors and critics than as the inspiration for Campbell’s later move to promote their own label as a fashion statement to people aware, however dimly, that it was now hip to do so. The mind that can switch back and forth from a classic nineteenth-century opera to a rock opera like Tommy without feeling disoriented is the mind of someone who has stopped sorting cultural artifcacts primarily as a means of keeping them apart. It’s an aesthetic sensibility that searches for correspondences, at whatever level, more eagerly than distinctions.
But as the psychedelic era amply demonstrated, the mental transcendence of limits, culminating in celebrations of the “oneness of everything,” frequently serves to mask the failure to transcend limits at a material level. An aesthetic sensibility open to improbable juxtapositions of high and low, traditional and modern may lead its proponents to regard the social and economic divisions that still define the global order as problems that can be solved solely by proper thinking. Not to mention that a willingness to mix what was once segregated can blind people to the divisions that make their cultural noblesse oblige meaningful in the first place. Indeed, those divisions are often exaggerated or oversimplified in the telling to burnish the reptuation of the trend-setters who, we are told, were so brave to flout them.
Intolerance of those who have good reasons for seeking to preserve the integrity of a specific cultural tradition is no better than intolerance of those who desire to transcend that kind of specificity. All too often, the people who feel most comfortable mixing are those for whom the risks of doing so have been minimized by social and financial privilege. Not only that, the sort of mixing in which they indulge, like someone poised before a well-stocked buffet table deciding what to try next, is wilfully ignorant of a past in which traversing boundaries was a necessity rather than a virtue. People who are too poor to be picky may cobble together meals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – tacos, pizza, ramen – but the exaltation of “fusion” cuisine was decidedly the work of the haute bourgeoisie.
Being the open-minded, highly informed students of musical history that they are, the members of Beyond the Pale are surely aware that the traditions they draw upon most heavily in Postcards were themselves the product of intense cultural hybridization. The romance of the shtetl, for example, depends as much on its dangerous interactions with the gentile world as it does on the preservation of a distinct Jewish heritage in the face of intense pressure to assimilate or convert. What gets lost on this album, in spite of what we must presume were the band’s best intentions to the contrary – the absence of an explanatory apparatus looms largest here – is a sense of what this earlier, pre-modern form of mixing cost its practitioners.
Just as the Country Bear Jamboree conceals the mixing of racially coded musical traditions by anthropomorphizing animals that make color seem insignificant, records like Postcards risk masking the violence of the cultural juxtapositions they celebrate by recasting them as the decisions of people who are free to choose which traditions to sample. While the same problem faces those artists, like Calexico, Gogol Bordello, and Devotchka, who approach those traditions from the perspective of rock, the edginess of the latter’s best work makes it easier for listeners to sense the danger bound up in their source material. As laudable as Beyond the Pale’s professionalism is, the ease with which they bring everything together gives their music a deceptively placid sheen. That’s why the three tracks sung by Lozinsky are the album’s best. She makes us feel the pain, as well as the pleasure, that radiates through the musical heritages Beyond the Pale draws upon. Her voice provides an existential answer to the question “Where does the music come from?”
Charlie Bertsch is Zeek‘s Music Editor. Prior to joining Zeek, he held the same editorial title at Tikkun. Bertsch was also a longtime contributor to the late, great Punk Planet, and was one of the founders of the pioneering electronic publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life. He welcomes your feedback whether in comments posted here or by e-mail.