(photo credit: Courtesy)
We all know the story - it's a 21st century middle-class American Jewish archetype. A Boro Park-raised Beis Yaakov girl gets expelled from her seminary in Israel amid a year of first relationships and her discovery of rock and roll. But in the case of Basya Schechter, the experience didn't end with a BA from Stern and a picket fence in Monsey. Rather, it was only the beginning of her journey, which included backpacking across Egypt, the Aegean, the Middle East and Kurdistan while finding her voice as a songwriter specializing in the juncture of world beat textures, hassidic sing-alongs and classic rock.
Schechter has been working with a variety of people under the umbrella-moniker Pharaoh's Daughter since the mid-'90s. The band first started gigging at Greenwich Village's Knitting Factory at a time when experimentation in sonic Jewish identity was beginning to explode. Pharaoh's Daughter's fifth studio effort, the recent Haran, marks a return to those formative alignments. The album is also the first-ever release from Oyhoo Records, a new initiative courtesy of Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf.
Comprised of strictly new, Schechter-penned melodies, Haran employs sounds that are rare even for ethnic music (the kora, kamonche, riq and santur all leave their marks) to draw the listener into dreamy and exotic realms. The titular opener uses chanting voices, soaring slide guitar and a slow-picked oud - all drenched in reverb - to establish ambience, culminating with a very Pink Floyd-sounding organ solo. Elsewhere, Haran gets brazen and thumpy, with infectious melodies providing excuses for post-punk girly abandon.
At least four of the disc's tracks are based on traditional Sabbath table hymns. Old poetry in Ladino, Hebrew and Aramaic provide starting points for many Schechter creations as well. "Samai," a traditional Arabic text presented here in a rare 10-beat rhythm, is one of many tracks that are little more than mesmerizing presentations of sparse, dissonant chants with arrangements that build in embellishment. Overall, Haran feels like a return to Schechter's earlier, more Suzanne Vega-influenced songs, but at the same time, the album probably reaches further into the bag of ethnic tricks than any Caucasian-developed song cycle has before.
Pray for the Peace
The Sababa trio, one of the few Jewish-themed rock bands to come out of the US Southwest and Rockies, consists of Steve Brodsky (of Denver's "Shabbat Unplugged" service), Scott Leader (who runs his own recoding studio in Phoenix) and Robbi Sherwin (the Austin-based cantor-chanteuse). The ensemble's overwhelmingly smooth, mid-tempo adult rock seems to be catching on, with gigs booked across the US this spring.
Pray for the Peace does feature two slow, piano-driven songs, including "Aravim," which is based on the evening service's opening blessings. On "Lo Alecha," which concludes with a tight a cappella part, Leader muses, "It's not up to me, it's not up to you / To finish the work, there's so much to do."
Elsewhere, Sababa gets cute, as with the "wah-ooooh"-laden "One Little," which sports the repeated solstice-themed couplet, "Latkes and applesauce on my plate / Hurry now and don't be late."
Ben Jacobson can be reached at email@example.com.