The famous historian Google teaches us that several waves of Eastern Europeans immigrated to Wisconsin since the state’s founding in 1848. So it could be that the gypsy-folk underpinnings and parlor-room romance of Pale Young Gentlemen’s debut are inspired by the shared Wisconsinite heritage of its members. Or perhaps they’re jumping on the pushcart that DeVotchKa, Beirut and Gogol Bordello set in motion. Whatever the genesis of the Pale Young Gentlemen’s wonderfully warped sound, there’s a tenderness and good-natured humor to the band’s songs, an elegance in their construction, that elevates them above the mawkish appropriation of their indie-Slav brethren.
Pale Young Gentlemen is a record of fin-de-siecle sounds and sensibilities. The band powers through Balkan oompah numbers like “Fraulein” and “Clap Your Hands” with an all-acoustic frontline (piano, acoustic guitar, cello), arranged for the dynamic variety of a chamber ensemble or a nineteenth-century string band. When they fast-forward, it’s to the stylish pop trappings of Tin Pan Alley and its latter-day disciples, Harry Nilsson and Rufus Wainwright. Songwriter Mike Reisenauer’s lyrics embrace the character-driven ballad tradition of yore, filling his songs with roguish men, bawdy women, and sailors and soldiers pining for their sweeties.
It would’ve been easy for the members of Pale Young Gentlemen to drown in their throwback sound, but they’ve got too much personality for that. Reisenauer’s voice rolls up silliness and sadness in a single baritone warble, and he presides over a group of musicians that follow every quirky twist and turn with ease. There’s a refreshingly human scale to everything on Pale Young Gentlemen — the songs are so strong that the crack of a snare drum and the bowing of a cello, simple gestures as they are, can achieve the band’s grand theatrical ambitions. Pale Young Gentlemen seem like real live human beings, and they infuse their music with that same humanity.