klezmatics 88 224.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Joshua Kessler)
Thanks to the release of Matisyahu's major label debut Youth, the launching of the landmark Jewish Music Group label and the release of edgy yet creative recordings by acts like Eden Mi Qedem and Heedoosh, 5766 might have been the year that Jewish music penetrated the mainstream pop culture consciousness. It can be argued, however, that 5767, which ended last week, was even more of a watershed year, as veteran East Village revivalists the Klezmatics beat out the likes of Timbuktu's Ali Farka Toure and Mali's Salif Keita to be awarded a Best Contemporary World Music Album Grammy this past February.
While indicators like those cited above seem to point to a music scene enjoying a cultural renaissance, the Jewish-themed studio album industry is certainly in flux. Mirroring the situation outside of the niche, Jewish music file sharing threatens to crush CD sales, and the struggling boutique distributor/labels are scrambling to solidify their futures.
Both in Israel and the Diaspora, an act's viability as a concert draw has become paramount, with many of the players becoming increasingly territorial. Regardless, Jewish-themed music has put out some celebration-worthy offerings over the past year, with this columnist's favorites listed below.
Yood is a pure Seventies-style guitar-rock power trio, but the phrased monster riffing and blistery licks of explosive axe-man Lazer Lloyd really drive the bus. Confining these jams to relatively concise studio cuts is a shame, but Passsinover does showcase plenty of chops.
Hopefully not a one-off project, Ta-Shma is a high-concept hip-hop and pop act aking to the Gorillaz. It features slick, layered production that goes out of its way to be as smooth and funky as possible. Spearheaded by a duo of West Coast yeshiva students and augmented by guest appearances from Andy Statman and Y-Love, Come Listen's Jewish values rhymes flow rapidly and smoothly.
Having made genre-bending progressive shtetl jazz sounds relevant for over 20 years, the Klezmatics' latest effort sets Woody Guthrie verses to original, klez-inspired melodies. The project began with an invitation from Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie and culminated with a statuette from the Hollywood recording industry's most influential trade group, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. One of the band's principal creatives, Frank London, recently visited Jerusalem with his AndraLaMoussia side project to kick off Beit Avi Chai's first-ever Jewish Music Days festival.
This Jerusalem-based band somehow mixes love song motifs, Nineties-style guitar rock, Jewish spirituality and synth-driven trance excursions and gets away with it. By the time they released the DIY debut The Source, Hamakor had garnered a big enough following to tour the US and to draw hundreds to gigs at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine club, where they return in early October.
6. THE EAST-WEST ENSEMBLE
Kabbalah Music: The Hidden Spirituals
Veterans of Israel's current piyut fusion boom, Yisrael Borochov and the East-West Ensemble, recently re-released this recording of a 2003 Israel Festival performance. Drawing from a cornucopia of traditions, including kabalistic texts, Yemenite folk tunes, Turkish piyutim, Sufi melodies and even Breslov niggunim, the suite oscillates between wall-of-sound ethnic flares and minimalist free-form verse chants - but it's all as elegant as it is engaging.
The boys from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's Moshav Mevo Modiim have finally made good on their threat to make it big in the New World with this effort, produced by Ron Aniello (Guster, Barenaked Ladies) and boasting drum parts from Matt Chamberlain (David Bowie, Elton John, Pearl Jam). Every spiritual guitar pop song is pushed to its dramatic edge.
Fresh Off Boat
A ferocious and tight Manhattan post-klezmer act that takes cues from punk rock, Golem has joined Balkan Beat Box as the flagship acts on JDub Records. For its JDub premiere, the band unleashed a high-energy romp of an album that features guest contributions from Phish bassist Mike Gordon and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye. But on the frantic signature tracks like "Mazel" and "The Rent," it's the dueling neurotic vocalist attack from the rabid Aaron Diskin and the panache-drenched Annette Ezekiel that blows the listener away.
3. ARYEH NAFTALY
Waiting for Elijah
(Third Age Productions)
Moshav Band neighbor and collaborator Aryeh Naftaly recently returned his focus to his solo career for the brand new double album Dvarim. To prepare for the project, he whittled down over 20 years of home studio tinkering into the intimate Waiting for Elijah collection. Reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and most often Young, the album's acoustic strum and toppy slide guitar parts provide effective settings to ethereal, affirming messages.
2. KABBALAH DREAM ORCHESTRA
Ancient of Days
The brainchild of wandering world beat pop experimenter Daniel Fries and Safed-based Chabad Rabbi Shalom Pasternak, the Kabbalah Dream Orchestra's Ancient of Days uses electronic beats and trippy sound effects to create new-school niggun settings marked by dense, throbbing arrangements. Here, didgeridoo parts, Dust Brothers-like breaks, xylophone lounge jams, Torah chanting samples, meandering atmospherics, soul-pop vocals, flamenco guitar solos and swirly effects combine to welcome the heady listener.
1. RAV SHMUEL
A veteran of the sidelocked rock and roll scene in Israel as well as across the USA, Rabbi Shmuel Skaist's Protocols explores a sonic landscape that is low-fi yet adventurous, fun yet made heavier by an early Bob Dylan-like smirking sense of doom. The listener is told about a wayward world desperate for repair, but Rav Shmuel maintains a silly attitude on top of his highly accessible punk-folk-dub settings.