Tuesday, December 21, 2004

In which Dm confesses a guilty pleasure...

Ever since I was in high-school, I've been a collector of Jewish music. It started in high-school when I began purchasing virtually every album that was released on the Brooklyn JM scene. This phase lasted a year or two, after which I came to the realization that, for the most part, I was essentially buying the same album over and over. The tunes were all composed by the same few people, the same three or four arrangers wrote the arrangements, and the same studio musicians played on most of the recordings. So, I stopped buying those albums. I would still occasionally pick up an album in the local seforim stores, but they would usually be the ones by lesser known artists rather than the popular releases.

The summer of my senior year, I spent an extended period of time in Israel and used the opportunity to purchase many recordings that weren't available in the US. Generally, I would have to buy these cassettes with no information other than the album title and whatever other info was included on the cover. The quality varied greatly, but I did discover a lot of interesting artists whose whose recordings were not available in the US. In particular, I discovered a sub-genre of Jewish music, if you will, consisting of Baalei Teshuvah who had composed new Jewish music using their secular influences. I picked up many of these recordings in a shop in the Old City that is no longer in business. Over the years since, whenever I've returned to Israel, I've made a point of picking up albums by artists I haven't heard of before.

Some of the discoveries I'd made those years back included:

Chaim David's first two albums "A New Light" and "Open Up" (I believe those are the titles). They've recently been re-released on CD. I was playing "Yemin Hashem" at simchos before Chaim David started coming over to perform in the states.

Another great find was Yitzchak Attias' album "Gather The Sparks". Yitzchak is a percussionist who is originally from Gibralter and the album features his Latin-jazz settings of Jewish texts. His tune, "Sheker Hachein" ought to be a standard at Jewish weddings. This album was influential in my comceptualization of what Jewish music is and could be. To the best of my knowledge, the album has not been available in the States.

I also picked up recordings by artists like "The Returning Light Band", Yehuda Katz, Yehuda Glantz, Brad (now Moshe) Schachter, Menachem Herman, and lots more.

More recently, I've discovered a sub-genre of Jewish music which I'm going to refer to as "Charedi rock." This is a distinct genre and is not to be confused with" Carlebachian" or "post-Carlebachian" groups or performers like Reva L'Sheva, Soulfarm, Moshav Band, Chaim David, and the like. It ranges from Yosef Karduner on the softer, folkier end of the spectrum to Adi Ran on the punk-edged rock heavy-rock side of the scale. The similarities that tie these artists together include a strong Breslov influence on the music. Many of the lyrics are either actual texts from Likutei Moharan and the like, or else they convey messages that are central to Breslover hashkafa (i.e. Mitzvah Gedolah.) Not all of these artists are Breslover chassidim, although many are. The artists also all seem to be connected by the fact that, for the most part, their music does not follow the simple Carlebachian song forms common with many of the "Carlebach talmidim." And, virtually all of their music is guitar-based.

About a year and a half ago, I purchased a number of interesting CD's in Israel which I've meant to write about for a while now, but just didn't get around to. Recently, I returned from another trip to Israel with still more CD's. I'm going to put up some short descriptions or comments on some of the more interesting ones. The main genre's covered by these CD's are "Chareidi Rock" and Chassidic, but there are a few other odds and ends thrown into the mix.

Here's a quick incomplete list of some of these purchases:

Haosef -- a 2 CD compilation of tracks by various artists released by Mayim (Musika Yehudit Mekorit). I purchased this last year and on a return trip purchased CD's by several of the featured artists. There's a beautiful version of Lev Tahor on there that I liked by Yoel Chaivi (sp?), but neither Gal-Paz nor Noam Hafakot had his CD or knew anything about him. I'd recommend this compilation as a nice introduction to the Charedi rock scene. Note: this was originally released as one CD, and that version is still out at the same price as the 2 CD set. The CD's feature music by artists like Yosef Karduner, Chaim David, Adi Ran, Hamedregot, Heleviim, Yisrael Dagan, Yitzchak Fuchs, Yitzchak Attias, Aaron Razel, Avraham Abitbol, and more. The first CD also has the original version of Dani Maman's "Osim Teshuva" which is a much better representation of the tune than the cover version on the recent Dedi & Yonatan album. The tune works so much better with organ instead of Rhodes. It also works better with Maman's vocals.

Chasdei Hashem -- This album by clarinetist Chilik Frank, obtained on last year's trip, is excellent. Three freilach medleys featuring Frank's exuberant clarinet playing. I liked this one a lot. I picked up some more of his work on my recent trip. One of them,the self-titled "Chilik Frank" was produced by Creative Audio's Jeff Horowitz. The arrangements and mix are a little too commercial for my taste, but the song selection is excellent and the clarinet playing is first rate. The other CD, "Tikun Chatzos", is a beatiful concept album of mostly slow music and has a nice mix of mystical melodies revolving around the theme of tikun chatzos. The clarinet was well-recorded. One peeve... I do wish that they'd used a real piano instead of an electronic one. The CD consists of duo arrangements for clarinet and piano performed by Frank and Israel Edelsohn. I'm also familiar with Edelsohn's work from his Meditations of the Heart album of Breslover nigunim.

Amazon has that one here:

Ateka Kadisha (Vols. 1 & 2) -- This is a production by well-known Belzer singer/composer Yimiya Damen. The recording is a tribute to his father and covers the Ropshitz-Rhozhadover nigunim his father would sing on friday night. The production is somewhat low-budget, with lots of keyboards and drum machine, but the heart comes through; an emotional musical tribute to his father. He sings the melody on the Ropshitzer Eishes Chayil with a variation that I've not heard elsewhere. I wonder if it's accurate, or if he or his father somehow modified/embelleshed the melody. I picked up the second CD in the series -- it's songs from Shabbos day --on my recent trip. It sounds like they rushed to finish this one, but the overall vibe is similar to the first.

Tzamah - A Belzer release. I reviewed this one last year. Unimpressive.

Nachas Ruach - This 1999 release by Menachem Herman and Jeff Horowitz was a disappointment. There are no arrangements to speak of and the music and singing is uninspired. I bought this one because one of the medleys looked interesting, and because I've enjoyed some of Menachem Herman's guitar work in the past. There is virtually no interesting lead guitar on this album and the vocals consist of group singing.

Nigunei Neshama (Breslov) -- This live recording is mainly of value for the melodies on it and not for the quality of the recording or performances. An accurate rendition of many old Breslover melodies.

Adi Ran - I was familiar with his first album "Ha'acharon Sheba'am" so I picked up "Al Takeh Basela" last year and his newest release "Ma Yesh Lachem Lidog" this year. I love this guy. His singing is er, interesting, with a non-conventional singing voice and concept of pitch (imagine Dylan fronting a Led Zep/Clash hybrid), but his music has a lot of soul. To me. it sounds like Adi has a great sense of swing too, in the way he phrases his vocals. His music is quite interesting, and he's written some really sweet tunes. Ran is a Breslover and that is reflected in his lyrics with many of them including "Na, Nach, Nachma..." refrains and texts from Rav Nachman's teachings. The music is is very influenced by punk/classic rock. I find his work compelling. A real guilty pleasure. As a bonus, the new CD comes with a guitar pick featuring a line drawing of Adi Ran. The recording quality on his first one isn't as good as the later ones, with a lot of headphone bleed in the vocal track, and it's noisy in general, but it has a lot of charm. The later albums are better produced and recorded. There's a bonus duet with Yossi Hoffman, "V'shamru", on the newest album that is just great. The two singers voices contrast nicely. I wouldn't have thought it, but it works. If you're looking for heavier Jewish music with soul, be sure to check these out.

Aaron Razel -- I purchased "Hasneh Boer", an early album of his last year and bought "Shir Tzion" this trip. I found the earlier album interesting and his track on the Haosef compilation I mentioned above "Ki Rega B'apo" was interesting enough that I purchased his new CD. I respect what he's trying to do, but the new album just didn't work for me (I've only listened once.) Part of what I enjoy about many of these recordings is the feeling of humanity and realness the lo-fi production (some would call it low-budget production) gives them. Razel's newest release sounds too produced for me, and the music loses much of its spontaneity. Also, he uses session guitarist Avi Singolda on this album, and I usually find his playing to be technically excellent, but sterile and uncompelling. I would note that Danny Zamir contibutes sax on the title track "Shir Tzion" which is named for Razel's son.

Uzi Hitman "Shar" -- This is a CD of Hitman performing many of his hits (most were originally recorded by other artists. I'm always interested to hear songwriters performing the tunes they've written for other people. The production/arrangements are very low-budget '80's, but the disc is a good reference for his music. I hadn't known that he'd composed "Kmo Tsoani." File this one under reference.

"The Hasidic Niggun As Sung By The Hasidim" -- This Hebrew University 2 CD set consists mainly of field recordings of Chasidic nigunim. The selection of tunes seems quite interesting .The included booklet is very informative, and this should be a great reference resource. I haven't listened to this one yet but I'm looking forward to learning some new melodies. Hatikvah Music has it here.

Reva L'Sheva "10 Years Live" -- This is a great 2 CD set that captures the band at a high-energy performance at Club Tzora. The band does basically one thing, but they do it quite well. High energy post-Carlebach rock. The set includes a large number of Carlebach covers. The CD liner notes also include a password to download a free mp3 from the band's website. It's a nice marketing idea, but the track they've chosen, "Mishenichnas" isn't so good. I'm familiar with many of the band members work from albums I purchased years ago like recordings by "The Returning Light Band."

Yitzchak Fuchs "Melech" -- I bought this one after hearing "Achas Shoalti" on "Haosef." The album is just him and his accoustic guitars. Not exactly Karduner-esque, but I like some of it. He has a new release out in Israel which I heard while I was there, but the music is much darker and it doesn't have the same sort of feel this one does. The new one (whose title escapes me) is a heavy, brooding album and not to my taste.

Avi Adrian "From Dust Created: Adrian Interprets Modzitz -- This is a great solo jazz piano recording of Modzitzer tunes. I highly recommend this one. A nice set. Also includes one Adrian original, "Ish Tzadik." The reharms on "Nigun No. 15" are particularly tasty.

Sinai Tor "Tov Kmo Achshav" -- This is slickly produced and well-recorded radio-ready J-rock music produced by Gavriel and Guy Hassoun. The recording quality on this one is commercial, but excellent. You can clearly hear when the drummer is using hot-rods instead of sticks. Most of the music on this doesn't grab me, but there is one beautiful ballad, "B'orcha Nireh Or." The piano sound on that track is stunning. I'm surprised that the NY artists recording in Israel aren't using these guys to produce their albums. Their commmercial production chops are great.

Miki Rosenbaum "Psaypas", "Zeh Hayom" and "Cartis Bikur" -- Miki Rosenbaum is a talented vocalist and I like his sound. His newest release "Psaypas" ("Mosaic") is a nice adult-contemporary sort of release with ethnic overtones. Think Turkish clarinet and chalil. "Hodu Lashem" blends the ethnic and contemporary sounds beautifully. The blend of old and new works quite well there. "Cartis Bikur" is essentially Rosenbaum's demo of the simcha repertoire. It's a little too poppy for my taste, and I definitely don't go for dance-mix versions of Yosef Karduner's "Shir Lama'alos." (There's more than one of those out there.) There are some interesting horn parts though, and the arrangements are quite good, if not wholly to my taste. I haven't yet listened to "Zeh Hayom" which was given to me as a freebie by the retailer when I purchased the other two.

"Yesh Lanu Tayish: Shirei Chayot Layeladim" -- I loved this on cassette so I couldn't pass it up on CD for 10 shek in the discount store. Classic Israeli animal songs. Fun for the whole family!

"Rakevet Arucha" --Classic Israeli songs for kids. Also 10 shek at the discount store. Includes tunes like Bialik's "Nad-Ned" and "Yonatan Hakatan."

Bustan Abraham "Fanar" -- An older album (1997) of Middle-Eastern music that is gorgeous. This Arab & Israeli band is quite good. Standout tracks include "Seven Eleven" and the country-Eastern album closer "Sireen" which sounds like something the Flecktones might have done were they from the Middle-East. The album also features several guest artists -- Indian master percussionist Ustad Zakir Hussein, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Achinoam Nini (Noa) and Gil Dor (who appear on one track only), Emil & Alexander Kroitor and Albert Piamenta.

I am familiar with bassist Emanuel Mann from his work on the Uri Caine/Aaron Bensoussan project Zohar/Keter.

Amazon has that one here:

Eyal Sela & Darma "Call of the Mountain: The mysterious Dances of Mount Meron -- A mix of old and new. Trance music meditations on ancient melodies with old-world instruments like oud and Turkish clarinet blending with synth pads and the like. As someone I know likes to say: "Those who like this sort of thing will like it." I thought it was interesting, but I don't see myself listening to it often.

Avraham Abitbol and Gadi Pogatch "Beit Hekedusha" -- I bought this one because I liked "K'sheadam Nichnas" on the Haosef compilation. This CD seems mostly unfocused though, and the melodies just aren't there. "Ksheadam Nichnas" is the best track on the album.

Avraham Abitbol "Cochavei Or" -- In a pop/rock vein, this recording is an interesting mix of styles. A little over-produced in some ways, overall, it's an interesting effort, and worth checking out. Much more interesting than "Beit Hakedusha". The opening track, "Or Ganuz" is quite catchy. I also liked "Libi Hamar, a waltz in which Abitbol's vocal is accompanied by classical guitar.

Haze Laser "Atitude of Faith -- This recording by former Shlock Rock vocalist Shmuel Laser -- who is now living in Israel -- isn't Jewish music, strictly speaking. It's heartfelt covers of secular tunes like "Go Down Moses" (which was inluded on "Shlock Rock Meets The Prophets"), "Time Waits For No One", "It's Always You", "Sweet Lorraine" and more. Shmuel is a soulful singer, and he sings from his heart. If you like this sort of music, the CD is available through the Shlock Rock website.