Thursday, July 31, 2003

On Jewish Music Criticism

For a critical take on the state of Jewish music today, take a look at Michael Steinhart's Jewish Music News and Views website.

I find the site interesting because Michael calls it as he sees it and it's interesting to see an opinionated view of Jewish music, as opposed to the positive "reviews" that are typically published in the Orthodox media.

(As a side note, about ten years ago I once watched a performer write a glowing review of his new album for publication in that week's Jewish Press. Apparently, a large enough ad purchase entitles you to a positive review published under their music columnist's byline. But, I digress.)

That being said, though, I find that much of what he writes can be summed up as follows:

1) Williger, Dachs, Wald, et al. are "kvetchers" who have nothing to say musically. Their music is always bad.

2) Carlebach and Carlebach-esque bands are always good. (Even off-key singers who only know three guitar chords. And I'm not referring to R'Shlomo here.)

3) Any music celebrities that Michael knows are good; even if they're part of the Brooklyn/Yeshivish music scene.

The main flaws with Michael's site are his inability to acknowledge any talent on the part of the "Brooklyn" artists and his attribution of motivations to these artists without any real facts to support his assertions.

Thus, with regard to Shloime Dachs' album K'ish Echod, Michael writes: "Real artists aren't in the business to get the next 'wedding hit.' They're in it to produce and play the music they love. So Shloime is being another good little gear in the vast Brooklyn machine with K'ish Echod, and we the dedicated freedom fighters must never let our guards down!!"

How does he know that Shloime doesn't genuinely love the music he's been recording and performing. The assertion may well be correct, but without proof, must be assumed to be untrue.

Or take his view of Yisroel Williger's Carlebach Friday Night release:
"Here's a quick note about Sruli Williger's new "Carlebach Friday Night" recording. Why did he (and the Sameach distributorship) put this out? To capitalize on the sudden explosion of Shlomo-style minyanim, and to bring the nusach to those who don't usually shop in the alterna-chasidus aisle at their local Judaica store... To sum up, I am not in favor of Yisroel Williger's Carlebach Friday Night. It's not sincere, it's not authentic, and it's not true to the spirit of Shlomo davenings. Despite what the artist, his handlers, or the liner notes may tell you."

Really? Perhaps, Williger released it because he was profoundly influenced by Shlomo's music and wanted to record a tribute to him in his own style? Why is a Williger recording of Carlebach tunes -- as unappealing as the idea may be to some -- any less legitimate than a Soulfarm recording of Shlomo's music? Shlomo influenced many performers who currently sing his music. Calling Williger's release "insincere" is an assertion made on baseless grounds. Using the same logic, one could call the Soulfarm (formerly Inasense) Carlebach recordings an insincere and cynical attempt to capitalize on the band's Carlebach connection -the lead singer and guitarist lived on Shlomo's moshav in Israel- and draw Jewish teens to their original rock music shows in NYC bars by being a "Jewish" bar band.

Michael obviously doesn't like the Williger album, and that's fine, but the fact that the singing and music are not his taste doesn't inherently make it illegitimate.

It's very easy to criticize the Jewish music coming out of Brooklyn these days, but would-be critics should stick to the facts. Criticize the music, and if the artist explains his motivations either in the liner notes, or publicly, than those are fair game as well. It is dishonest and unfair to make up "facts" and than mock or criticize the artists on the basis of said "facts."

For an alternative approach to critiquing today's Brooklyn/Yeshivish music, take a look at the reviews on Aryeh Steiner's Jewish Music website

Although Aryeh often points out flaws in the recordings, and expresses his likes and dislikes, he rarely ascribes motivations to the singers and avoids the kind of speculation and innuendo that Steinhardt seems to pride himself on.