ccording to Charming Hostess: “Our genre might best be described as NERDY-SEXY-COMMIE-GIRLY”
You could probably divide music fans into two groups: those who find their interest piqued by such a description, and those who run screaming in terror. Furthermore, you might want to add “a capella” to that description, and see if anyone else heads for the door.
Those who stay would be a small group, but I’d be amongst them. If you feel the same way, you’re probably still reading this review, so let me tell you: Charming Hostess are your new favourite band.
They’re not really “new” though. Charming Hostess have been labouring in musical obscurity for years, on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and receiving good reviews from the small number of critics who actually review them. Most critics tend to say their music “defies description” or “must be heard to be believed.” This is, of course, true for most music, but critics try anyways. So here goes: Charming Hostess are, more than anything else, a vocal group. They’re not strictly a capella, but the group’s focus is on vocals, which makes sense since Jewlia Eisenberg, de facto leader and a solo artist in her own right, and the other Hostesses all have pretty incredible voices. If you come, as I do, from a background of listening mostly to rock and rap, the shock of listening to people who have actually studied singing, and looked into different ways of doing it, can be extreme. Charming Hostess incorporate the vocal sounds of Bulgaria, North Africa, the Jewish Diaspora and, as the title Sarajevo Blues suggests, the Balkans, into something seamless and original: “NERDY-SEXY-COMMIE-GIRLY” and also “KLEZMER-PUNK/BALKAN-FUNK.” I can only hope somebody besides me will read that and say, “Fuck yeah!”
If you did, here’s the lowdown: Sarajevo Blues is only one of several Charming Hostess releases. The first, and probably the best, was Eat, released in 1998, and now sadly out of print. You can still order it from the band, and you should. Prior to Sarajevo Blues, head Hostess Jewlia Eisenberg also released a solo album, Trilectic, which is a concept album about Walter Benjamin’s sex life (no, really), and Thick, released by the band Red Pocket, which consists of Jewlia and fellow Hostess Marika Hughes. Thick is practically a rap album (did I mention they beatbox?), and it’s also raunchy as hell, making it the only thing Tzadik will ever release that will make you think impure thoughts. Trilectic is probably the weakest release in the Charming Hostess catalogue, but it’s still really good. There’s also another Charming Hostess releases coming out this year, Punch. Collect them all!
Sarajevo Blues itself is amazing, and noteworthy because it represents a new political direction for Charming Hostess. Although any self-described “COMMIE” band would seem inherently political, the politics of earlier releases seem more individual than those on Sarajevo Blues. Eat and Thick both seem, to me, to be essentially feminist in their content, most of which focuses on women, and the various problems involved in being a woman, such as punk-ass skinny boys complaining about your weight. Trilectic is about one of Marxism’s greatest thinkers, but it mainly deals with his nerdariffic sex life, not his ideas. Sarajevo Blues, by contrast, confronts a very recent historical event: the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent attack on multi-ethnic Bosnia by the forces of Serbian nationalism. The conflict that tore the Balkans apart throughout the 90’s is already being rapidly forgotten, so Sarajevo Blues seems all the more important now. The album serves two purposes, painting a portrait of Sarajevo as it was, a multicultural metropolis that played host to the 1984 Olympics, and the subsequent destruction of that city and the multi-ethnic dream for which it stood. Who better to make such an album than Charming Hostess, a group that defy all ethno-cultural barriers with their music?
I don’t mean to get “heavy” in what is, after all, just an album review, but the tragedy of Bosnia-Herzegovina is part of our history. Already it seems that people are beginning to forget the story, and certainly nobody seems interested in the many problems still facing the Balkans, ranging from the continued existence and prominence of fascist politicians to the massive sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the absence of the media, politicians, and intellectuals, the task of keeping this memory fresh falls to artists like Charming Hostess. They’ve made an admirable contribution, that also fucking rocks, and they deserve to be richly rewarded. Get out there and cop this!
Reviewed by: Ryan Hardy
Reviewed on: 2005-03-08