There are a small number of modern songs based on a prayer from the Talmud, with one of the most famous, and most covered, being Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire.” >Cohen took the Unetanneh Tokef (“Let Us Speak of the Awesomeness”) passage, recited on Yom Kippur, and wove a tale of those who would pass during the year, as the judgment of God from the Book of Life. Cohen and Janis Ian play the role of the readers. The original is very matter-of-fact about the job and attaches no additional emotion to the task at hand. Although there are a number of ways in which the judgment can be visited, the outcome is (of course) the same.
Partisan (a label named after a Cohen song) labelmates Skinny Pelembe and Beth Orton have recently given us their reading of the song, following a chance meeting at the Glastonbury Festival. Reverb adds tension from the start, and the tune is uncertain and difficult to pin down, a punk play on emotions, with a carnival feel. Pelembe seems unsure of himself in the first verse. However, even this level of confidence really falters when Orton joins in. Initially behind the vocals from Pelembe, she is soon leading, and some of the more baroque ways of passing judgement are her work. She seems to relish the task and whips Pelembe into a frenzy too. If someone is to come calling at the appointed hour, you would probably be worried if it was her. Overall there is a demonic hint to the proceedings, but backed with expert management of the mood and music.
Check it out below.