I’m ambivalent about the way my music streaming service uses an algorithm to guess what kind of music I might like to hear next, but sometimes it comes up with a real winner. When it served up a track by something called Yom, and I heard the opening section of fingerpicked clean electric guitar with lots of reverb, I thought it was maybe something like SUSS, one of my favorite discoveries of 2020. But then after that intro of this song called “Journey Of Life,” what I heard was a clarinet playing in klezmer style with lots of bent notes in a very blue minor key, followed by a rock drummer with deep thudding kickdrum, and finally the high lonesome strains of a pedal steel guitar, and I was immediately hooked.
Yom is the stage name of French clarinetist Guillaume Humery. Inspired initially as a young child by modernist classical music by Sergei Prokofiev, the 40-year-old musician has spent the better part of two decades exploring the possibilities of klezmer in various musical settings. He has recorded “solo” and with The Wonder Rabbis, always pushing the music in new directions. Thus his 2010 album with The Wonder Rabbis With Love delves into superhero mythology and modern Eurasian conflicts and themes in a musical setting that approaches heavy metal; 2014’s Le silence de l’exode is a sparse and somber journey through the Exodus and the Jewish Diaspora; and 2018’s You Will Never Die! explores themes of personal, cultural and global death due to climate change, in an electronic music environment.
The klezmer motif comes from the maternal side of his family; his mother was a Jewish woman with origins in Transylvania. For his 2016 album Songs for the Old Man Yom explores the world of his father, who either came from America or perhaps went to America – the translation of his French website is unclear to me. Regardless, it’s a wild and wooly — and often contemplative — marriage of klezmer with dusty, desert Americana, and I love it. As his website describes it, it’s an album of instrumental folk songs “for his father, but also to all those who spend their lives on the road, nomads, hobos, displaced people, refugees … ”
After the somber but hopeful introduction of “Journey Of Life” comes the upbeat road trip tune called “Everywhere Home.” There’s more of that clean, reverb-laden electric guitar from Aurélien Naffrichoux (the band’s arranger who also plays other guitars on the album, including the steel guitar and a baritone guitar for that Western style “Marlboro Man” sound), plus some subtle flourishes of banjo from the band’s other guitarist, Guillaume Magne. Magne also plays some mean dobro, and that’s what we hear on the intro to the next track, “Dark Prayer.” Gone is that clean “thin high mercury” guitar sound on this one, which would be at home on an album by The Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band. Everything’s distorted, including Yom’s clarinet, that dobro and Naffrichoux’s baritone ax; bassist Sylvain Daniel contributes muddy bottom and drummer Mathiew Penot kicks you know what all the way home.
The album nicely combines rockers like “Dark Prayer,” the soaring “Eldorado 54,” and the flamenco-influenced “Wayfaring Kid” with more peaceful tunes like the centerpiece “The Old Man,” and especially the last two tracks “Those Who Stayed Behind” and the finale, “On The Endless Road.” That last one fits its title so well, its stripped-down arrangement perfectly matching the theme. Pretty much the full band is playing except maybe the bass, but the lonesome clarinet melody takes front seat, backed by hushed contributions of pedal steel, strummed guitar and softly brushed snare.
(Buda Musique, 2016)