Brothers Lazaroff Clings to Hope During These 'Dangerous Times'
We are living in dangerous times, St. Louis singer/songwriters Jeff and David Lazaroff say, and we all need coping mechanisms to get through an increasingly negative election season in which African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and others have been targeted as “other.”
Music and metaphor is the brothers’ mechanism. Dangerous Times, the Brothers Lazaroff band’s seventh studio album, is a response to the unprecedented bigotry and fearmongering unleashed during the past year and a half.
The album is “our attempt to process the insanity and call on love,” they say.
The name Donald J. Trump, or that of any other electoral participant, appears nowhere. Jeff Lazaroff says that the brothers rarely take a literal approach in their writing and that in this case, “it just didn’t feel necessary to name names.”
“Some of the hate and the bigotry really falls along the lines of history and aren’t totally owned by Donald Trump,” he says. “Many people have owned these things throughout history. And even right now, we’re seeing a rise of authoritarian strongmen throughout the world. These are old techniques, and fearmongering is something that’s been around as long as human civilization. So it’s more shock at its resurgence than on one person who’s utilizing it for personal gain.”
David Lazaroff says the brothers began writing these songs last fall, about the time Trump proposed a ban on Muslim immigration as a way to counter terrorism.
“When you have that kind of movement happening, especially as Jews, with the history that you know,” it struck a chord, David says. “We started with … one or two songs that were kind of vaguely about it and then, as he kept growing in popularity, we just kept writing, and I think somewhere in probably January, we realized it was a concept album.”
The songs on Dangerous Times take straightforward verse/chorus forms and chord progressions. But they conjure very strong feelings of anxiety and discomfort via fuzzy guitar, violin, and keyboard sounds, and edgy jams on song fadeouts — discordant interruptions for dysfunctional times.
“I think we wanted it to be edgy in that way because we’re not really trying to package up something neat and clean around these subjects,” David Lazaroff says. “Sometimes the music can say things that words can’t say. Some of those jams happened after the tracks had kind of run out and we just kept playing … and we kind of found that the emotion from the words were just in the moment, a kind of reaction to that first time everyone heard these songs and what they’re about. It was a real reaction from the band to bring that energy.”
This will come as no surprise to fans of Brothers Lazaroff, whose eclectic leanings have found them playing jazz clubs and hosting annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo concerts. They are all accomplished musicians, with David and Jeff on guitars; Nate Carpenter on piano and organ; newcomer Mark Hochberg on violin; and the longtime rhythm section of drummer Grover Stewart and bassist Teddy Brookins. On “Dangerous Times,” they are helped out by Chicago cousin Stuart Rosenberg on his vintage Mandocaster.
This is a band that can pivot from rock and country to jazz and funk to, yes, klezmer and Yiddish folk.
But the 11 songs on Dangerous Times are not unrelentingly dark; indeed, the album’s song sequencing progresses from darkness into light — or at least into a prayer for light — marked by the Lazaroffs’ vivid imagery and spiritual influences.
“When we put together the sequencing of it, we had that somewhat in mind,” Jeff Lazaroff says. “As songwriters, we like to at least believe that there are some glimmers of hope, and we try and put that in our songwriting even if we’re writing about really dark subject matters.”
The darkness begins in the title song: “These dangerous times that we are living in/ I’m crawling out of my skin/ Reckless with the pain where it isn’t/ Hate from the unloved has arisen.”
Who are the unloved? David Lazaroff believes that the millions of Americans supporting Trump — politics and political strategy aside — are products of a culture addicted to watching people like Charlie Sheen and the Kardashians “crash and burn.” Such supporters live in a bubble, hearing and seeing only people like themselves; “playing with resentment of the defeated/
All the suspicions they’ve been cheated,” in the words of the track “Go Away.”
“If you don’t travel and if you don’t dig in deeply and have relationships …” he says. “There are whole parts of this country living diverse, multicultural existences, and then there are folks who are afraid and are letting that fear rule. You can look at the political theater, and then we can look at the emotional state of our communities on all levels and understand how this phenomenon happened.”
“Don’t Look Now” evokes newsreel footage of Nazi party rallies in the 1930s: “I saw a large crowd in a black and white movie/ Pulsing back and forth like breath in the lungs/ A man stood before them shaking and screaming/ Inciting them all, got ’em speaking in tongues.”
“I think we’ve all noticed those parallels and been shocked and disgusted at those parallels in what we consider kind of an enlightened society,” Jeff says. “It was shocking to see those (Trump) rallies … of violence inside, (and) people being beat on and crazy insults.”
On “Cover for Our Heads” and “Pay It No Mind,” the Lazaroffs comment on the futility of ignoring what’s happening. In the latter, an image is evoked of, perhaps, folks at a country club pretending that everything is fine, nothing in the country has changed and there is no need to deal with the “other” — whoever that might be.
“As Jews, we’ve been in those positions of passing by tables and not being allowed to sit down with a group of people who didn’t want us there as they talked quietly,” Jeff says. “So I think a lot of that thinking was what a lot of African-Americans have been going through for years in our country and that as Jews, we, too, have been treated as that ‘other.’ ”
After “Go Away,” an incantation against evil, self-delusion, seduction, resentment, and suspicion, a corner is turned.
The song titles map the progression out of darkness: “Never Grow Old” (“walls of light surround me … fighting for love like a misfit”); “Trust Me Now” (“it’s gonna be okay”); “Heavy Heart” (“Please can you do me a favor/ Make this storm pass real soon/ I’m scared of the damage it may leave behind”); and the chant of “Lights Are On” (“I keep tellin’ myself lights are on, lights are on”).
The Lazaroffs are ultimately hopeful that the hate and bigotry that until this election cycle had lurked mostly in the fringes will once again be tamped down after it is recognized as abhorrent.
“You feel it kind of gathering almost like a storm cloud,” David says. “You hope that whenever this crops up and becomes emboldened the way it’s become emboldened … it’s almost like we’ve been through these kind of dark times, and these patterns have happened before, and you hope that it just doesn’t do too much damage because, in the end, I guess, there is a lot of hope.”
Photo of Jeff Lazaroff (left) and David Lazaroff by Phillip Hamer.
This article has been lightly edited from its original version published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.