Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: Mikey Pauker–Extraordinary Love: It’s An Extraordinary Album

 

I may not be the right person to be writing a review of this album. As much as I try to stay informed, and keep up with the music scene, I freely admit I’m not well versed in the many Cover Exttraordinary Lovegenres one can now find. There are just too many for me to keep up with them all. I’m just the sort of person that knows that, within every genre of music, there is good music, there is mediocre music, and there is music that’s not as good as other music (I’m hesitant to use the word bad, because even though I may think some music is bad, somebody somewhere must like it.) Some music has good production values, some has mediocre production values, and some has poor production values (and here, I might even be tempted to use the word bad, because I have heard some projects with really bad production values over the years.) So, while I have my preferences, and there are certain styles of music that I prefer over others, I purposefully listen to all kinds of music, and decide if I love it, like it, think it’s okay, or don’t care for it. Of course, maybe that makes me the perfect person to review this album. I’m just going to tell you whether or not it’s something I like, and suggest why you might like it, too. To put it simply, when I’m listening to it on Pandora, (or Spotify, or Google Play, or Rhapsody) I can tell you if it gets a thumbs-up, a thumbs-down, or a pass. (To me, a pass is like saying I won’t mind if I hear it again, as opposed to a thumbs-up which says I want to hear it, and songs like it, more often.)

So, bottom line is, I like this album. Mikey Pauker is an extremely talented musician. He is, as the Jewish Week described him, a “folkie with a hip-hop groove.”  Of course, I’m sure some of that is due to his working with Diwon, the DJ-Producer best known for his blend of hip-hop and middle-eastern, and his record label Shemspeed. However, this album doesn’t feel like an overlay of one genre upon another. It’s more like a synthesis, like Pauker and Diwon really connected and drew upon each other.

There are those who will listen to this album and ask “is this Jewish music?” Setting aside the absurdity of such a question, it is fair to say that, for the most part, these aren’t songs you’re likely to see used anytime soon in the synagogue for worship. I don’t think that matters one bit. Judaism is  being redefined yet again by today’s generations. A lot of young (and even middle-aged) Jews are flocking to alternative settings to find their Jewish fix.  They’re going to Warehouse Shabbat in Brooklyn, the 6th and I Synagogue in DC, and flocking to the events sponsored by East Side Jews in LA. The music from Extraordinary Love will fit right in. It’s also the sort of music that 20 and 30 something Jews will love to listen to as part of their everyday soundtrack of life. Frankly, it’s music that this 50-something will include in the shuffled mix of music to which he listens. It’s very well done.

There were no thumbs-down songs on this album. The album opens with the title song, “Extraordinary Love.” It sounds vaguely like something I might hear at random based on the taste preferences of some of the folks I follow on Pandora to help expose me to more kinds of music. Others more versed in genres could probably tell you where this song fits, and what artist it sounds like. I’m just not up on all that.  Besides, for me, well, it didn’t matter. It got me interested enough to say “hey, I wanna here what the rest of this album sounds like.”

I thought at first that the next son, “Zion,” might be cut from the same cloth. Turns out I was pretty much right about that – which was okay. It was a good song, and a good listen. I was hoping, however, the next song would be really different.

It wasn’t that different. At least not for me. I am sure those more versed in these various genres wouldn’t consider any of the first three songs as being anything alike, but while I can and did hear differences between them, my brain still sort of lumped them all into the same basic category. If the rest of the album was all in this same style, I know I wouldn’t be thrilled. Nevertheless, beside that sentiment, something about this third song, “Top of the World” started to draw me in. I went back and listened to the first two songs, and slowly began to realize that they weren’t all that similar, but I could also understand why, to my brain, they all fit within the same broad type.

Then, something different. Was this from the soundtrack of  “O Brother Where Art Thou?” No, but it was a real lark of  song, this “Miracle.” Perhaps Diwon didn’t really know what to do with this one, so it seems likely he did the safest thing and mostly left it alone. Ah, I thought, this broke things up a bit. Almost funky enough for a thumbs-up. I wonder what’s next?

“Where Ghost Can’t Hide.” That’s what was next. Here’s a song I would fully expect to come up in rotation on any adult alternative list. This one got a definite thumbs-up.

Then came “Borei.” Now here’s a song based on text one doesn’t come upon often in a musical setting. It’s loosely based on the b’racha one recites after having a nightmare or bad dream. This song will certainly provide a positive alternative to the anxieties of a nightmare, just as the prayer is intended to do.

“Rock My Boat” is a musical plea to not have one’s boat rocked, and live with love. The irony of the song and its message are not lost amidst its unique musical setting.

A thumbs-up goes to the “Shalom Aleichem.” Yes, this thumbs-up from the reviewer who is constantly complaining that we don’t need yet another version of the same old texts. This is a totally new take on this ancient bit of poetry.

“The Light,” featuring Y-Love, is another thumbs-up. It may be the most spiritually Jewish song on the album, which is not surprising, considering that Pauker based it on chapter 47 of the Tanya, the primary text for the Chabad approach to hasidic mysticism.

The reggae-esque “Plenty of Love,” with the added contributions of TJ Di Hitmaker and Lior Ben-Hur also rates a thumbs-up. I also want to offer a hearty thanks for not “Auto-Tune” –ing this one to death, allowing the raw singing to shine through.

Another thumbs-up as Mikey’s folkie roots shine through the most on the album’s final song, “The Rain.” The instrumental variety, stylistic progressions and changes through the song make it a perfect capstone to an exciting album from a rising star on the Jewish music scene. This song was produced by Brian Judah, who also produced Mikey’s wildly popular Hinei Mah Tov (Eeoohh!) and was a year in the making. It was worth the time, Mikey.

I’ll admit that my Jewish playlists still tend to favor Friedman, Klepper, Taubman, Silver, Glaser, Dropkin, Avni, Maseng, et al. Sure Dan Nichols, Rick Recht, Josh Nelson, Naomi Less, and Michelle Citrin are there too. (No offense to the many I’ve left out-chances are you’re in there too, I just can’t put the whole list in this review! )Now it’s time to add Mikey Pauker to the mix. The music he is creating is exciting, contemporary, and, if you’ll forgive my anachronistic terminology, hip.

To learn more about Mikey, be sure to visit him at  http://mikeypauker.com/

“Extraordinary Love” will be available October 1st via these digital retailers:

iTunes
Spotify
Amazon Mp3
eMusic
MOG
Rhapsody
CD Baby
Google Play

(links will be activated when the album goes on sale) 

@2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Eliana Light’s “A New Light”

Some albums cry out for piece by piece analysis and criticism. Some albums are satisfying enough that this isn’t truly necessary.

Because elianalightanewlightthis is a first solo album from a (relative) newcomer part of me is tempted to be more supportive and critical. The other part of me is crying for critical analysis, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that I’m not going easy on the artist or the album in order to be encouraging.

Problem is, I’m having a difficult time finding things of which to be critical, at least publicly, in a review. (There are often nit-picky things which reviewers might to mention and/or discuss privately with an artist, and that may well be the case here.)

This is a well-thought out project from start to finish. The song-writing is good. The arranging is good. The variety of styles and the order of selections is good. The production, from an always reliable Scott Leader, is good.

Yes, it has some of the hallmarks of a first project, of a young, less-seasoned songwriter and performer. In this case, all that really is saying to me is that there’s a lot of room to grow from this solid start.

The project is a little on the “light” side (excuse the groaner) in that it only has 9 tracks. I wouldn’t mind a little more variety in style (the album pretty much has “up” tunes and “down” tunes, or, if you prefer, “rockers” and “ballads” that aren’t all that intrinsically different in style, but the songs themselves and their arrangements are different enough you won’t get tired of that too quickly.

Eliana Light’s passion for Judaism, and, in particular, Jewish education, shines through in her songs. The 23-three-year-old  Memphis, Tennessee-born, Brandeis graduate, and Education Director for the Bible Raps Project is definitely someone to keep an eye on. This fall, you can find her at the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS in New York in the Fall as part of their experiential learning program. Good luck, Eliana. And keep writing and singing.

Eliana Light’s website

“A New Light” is available from:

CDBaby

Amazon

 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Sam Glaser–The Promise

It has been a while since we’ve had a new album of Jewish music from Sam Glaser. I’m happy to say it was worth the wait.

Like many, I first discovered Sam at a CAJE confesamglaser-the promiserence in the early 90s. It’s fair to say that, as a pianist myself, I was drawn to his performance naturally. However, it wasn’t just his skills as a pianist, vocalist, and songwriter that drew me to him. It was Sam, himself. He loves what he does, and it shows. He loves crowds, and he loves singing with them as much as he enjoys singing for them.

This is evidenced by the prevalence of anthem songs on many of his recordings and at his concerts. Songs that just scream “sing along with me.” It’s also evident on his albums like “The Sings We Sing" and “The Songs We Sing Volume 2” on which Sam performs Israeli and American classic from the Jewish repertoire.

“The Promise” is classic Glaser from start to finish. For some artists, formulaic would be a pejorative, a criticism. Sam succeeds in this where even some of the best and brightest songwriters in the music field fail. Yes, Sam utilizes elements of “music factory” style that started years ago in Nashville and Hollywood and has taken over the music industry (and he is far from alone in this among Jewish artists.) I’m not sure what Sam’s secret is, but even though I believe he’s often using formulaic songwriting, there’s enough variance from one song to another that was written in a similar mode. His craftsmanship is on a level above the pablum that Disney and most of the music industry feeds the world’s teens and adults on an almost daily basis. Many of the songs may be anthems, and designed to be sing-able, but Sam doesn’t sell the talent of his audience short, and sing-able doesn’t mean simple. His melodic lines can be challenging, and his lyrics truly thoughtful. There’s an underlying complexity to his work and that may be his secret.

Here’s the downside of that: several of his previous albums will provide you with that same Sam Glaser fix. When you’re craving those Sam Glaser chord progressions, sing-able anthem-esque lyrics, and infectious arrangements, you can pick any one of several of Sam’s classic albums.  Not all of Sam’s albums are the same – I don’t want to give that impression. Sam’s done some truly interesting projects over the past two decades, in a variety of styles and genres. Truth be told, those projects outnumber what many think of as those in his classic style like “Hineni,” “A Day in the Life,” or “Across the River.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sam is also a great engineer and producer, and that always shows on his projects.

There are two songs on this project that I would criticize. First is the country-style “Simple Song for Israel.” It’s a cover of the Bobby Darin song “Simple Song for Freedom.” The classic country setting is so obnoxiously stereotypical, that I think even Bobby Darin couldn’t avoid deviating stylistically a bit near the end-and it was a bit of an odd transition in the original and in this parody/cover. It’s a not a bad song, but it is just a wee bit out of place. The album’s final cut, a rocked-up studio version of “Hatikvah” left me a little flat. Do something really different and controversial like Hendrix did with the Star Spangled Banner, and maybe you can get my attention, but this one sort of felt like album-filler to me. It may be coincidental, but both of those songs were done by Sam on commission, the first for Aish, and the Hatikvah for Babaganewz. So I’ll cut him some slack on these two. On my scale, if that’s the worst I have to say, then this album is still by far and away a recommended buy!

Perhaps it is because we’re both pianists that I always enjoyed performing and teaching his songs for others. I think we’d both agree that what comes forth through our fingers is prayer. It has been a while since I’ve seen Sam Glaser perform live. I hope to rectify that. I know that hearing him sing, and singing along myself in concert with the songs from The Promise will secure for them a place in my heart as happened with so many of his earlier projects.

If you’re already a Sam Glaser fan, you’ll want to buy “The Promise.”  If Sam is new to you, “The Promise” is as good an introduction to his music as any. (There is also his greatest hits album, “Inspired.”) Be sure, however, to also introduce yourself to other sides of Sam’s music, like “The Presence” (which I think may be his personal favorite, as well as mine) the children’s CDs “Lullabies and Jitterbugs” and “Soap Soup,” the intriguing “Edge of Light” and the many other fascinating projects that have spring forth from this mensch of a performer.

www.samglaser.com

CDBaby

iTunes

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Saturday, May 25, 2013

All Ways…–Steve Dropkin: Another Winner

 

The title says it all – this is, indeed, Steve Dropkin in all ways, inall ways cover every way. You know how some people speak of certain Stephen Sondheim musicals as having been written for Sondheim fans? Well, and honestly, I don’t mean this as a pejorative, this is an album for Dropkin fans. However, it is also a great way for people who don’t know Steve’s music to discover it and fall in love with it. Either way, it’s a winner.

It may just be because I have known Steve and his music for a long time, and because of my particular musical skills, that I can recognize a Steve Dropkin song pretty quickly. Steve has certain unique styles, rhythmic, lyric, and chordal patterns and other common components that identify it. That’s not a bad thing. I can say the same for many great bands and great artists. (Tell me you can’t identify a Mumford & Sons tune within seconds!) Yes, identifying is harder with some artists and bands, who have greater and wider variance in the makeup of their songs and recordings. And I’m not saying that Steve hasn’t produced works in many different styles over the years – he has. There’s been great musical variety in his output. Still, it has been my experience that he works best when he stays within his sweet spot, musically. And this album is right in the middle of that sweet spot. It has all the things that demonstrate that Steve is a great songwriter and performer.

It also demonstrates Steve’s long-time mastery over production. Steve is not the least bit afraid to admit that song production uses methods and tricks – things often referred to as “ear candy.” Steve has always had a gift for knowing just how much “ear candy” to use, and where to use it.  It also doesn’t hurt that Steve combines his production savvy with that of another master, Troy Dexter, who continues, year after year, to help many Jewish artists create projects with the best production values around. Steve and Troy have a long history of working together, and we’re all the beneficiaries of that.

I think I say this in just about every review I write these days that we don’t need more settings of the same liturgy for which there already exist so many usable settings already. However, it occurs to me that if everyone followed my advice on that score, we might miss out of some wonderful new settings. If you look at the scope of Steve’s work over the years, you’ll see that he has  been slowly working his way through the liturgy, and each new project brings us new settings which can and often do find their way into usage at services around the country (and indeed the world.)  I may believe we do not need yet another Mi Chamocha, L’cha Dodi, Bar’chu, Shalom Aleichem, Adonai S’fatai, Or Zarua and Shiviti (though there are admittedly fewer of those.) Nevertheless, every one of these new settings from Steve is solid and a potentially useful addition to the canon. Steve has given me cause to reflect on my feelings about Jewish songwriters constantly revisiting the same pieces of liturgy and text, something I intend to write about on this blog shortly.

The album opens with a setting of the Bar’chu, that, after it’s haunting opening, morphs into a simple, singable pop melody that could easily find its way into rotation in camps and synagogues.

Or Zarua is classic Dropkin. It has all the hallmarks of Steve’s solid songwriting, and is performed in classic Dropkin style. I was hoping for a little more vocal backup, especially on the chorus,  and I’d love to see a choral setting of this (or maybe I’ll just write one myself.)

Shiviti delivers a hopeful message wrapped in a pleasant and easy on the ears musical package. It may be one of the most compelling settings Steve has ever penned, and it truly conveys the meaning of the text.

Mi Chamocha is a fun new setting. Even though he’s writing for a worship setting, Steve is never afraid to give the participants credit for being able to quickly learn and sing melodies that challenge as they are a step above simple. Thanks for that, Steve.

Then, almost as if to prove that last statement wrong, Steve gives us a L’cha Dodi that  is truly simple and easy to learn. It deserves to find its way into rotation at synagogues and camps in the same way his Al Shlosha and Ein Keiloheinu have done.

Joss Wheedon would like Steve’s new Adonai Sifatai (Firefly/Serenity fans, give it a listen and see if you know what I mean. There’s this underlying hint of wild west country just under the surface.) It’ll work at services quite well, even though it won’t have all the beautiful musical ear candy behind it which makes it a great listening experience on the album.

Grant Us Peace would make a nice change of pace to use in a service, if you’re looking for an English language setting. It’s fun and singable enough to stand on its own outside of services as well.

Shalom Aleichem is….another Shalom Aleichem. Serviceable. Pleasant. Fun to sing. Given that I’m re-examining my ideas about new versions of texts for which we already have a plethora of settings, I won’t rush to judgment on this one. At first I thought I might be less likely to work this into my rotation of Shalom Aleichems than say, perhaps the L’Cha Dodi, Mi Chamocha, or Adonai Sifatai on this new album, but it might make for a nice change of pace. It sort of grows on you.

On the other hand, we probably could use more settings of Veizeh Hu, and I hope this one finds it way into use at camp and religious school. I’m a little disappointed it doesn’t include more of the Hebrew text, but the message is all there, and well-delivered, musically.

The song I listened to first when I received the album was World Yet To Come. It’s a classic, from Steve’s earlier days with the group Ketzev. In this new version, Steve has replaced his former partners, Susan and Lisa, with his daughter Ariel. What a pleasant and fortuitous choice. (Ariel joins Steve on four other numbers, ably providing backup vocals. Talent runs in the family.)

Build a New Day is a worthy successor to the series of anthem songs that Steve has managed to include on all his projects over the years.  In fact, for me, it wouldn’t be a Steve Dropkin album without one or more of these songs. To be honest, they’re all a little similar stylistically – If Not Now When, Keep Our Hopes Alive, Light to the Nations,  We All Stand Together, This Is Our Promise and some others. (OK, On That Day didn’t really have one of these-Withstanding the Trend took a different stylistic turn, though it was still an anthem piece of sorts.) These songs are Steve’s musical equivalent of ending a show with an medley of patriotic songs – they are uplifting, inspiring, and a challenge to us to live up to our ideals and beliefs. Build a New Day does not disappoint as an anthem.

I would be remiss if I did not add a note on Steve’s continuing improvement as a singer. With each new project his vocal skills show the evidence of his effort to be an even better singer than he already was. I think I can safely say that these improvements are as much, if not more, the result of Steve’s efforts than improvements in technologies like AutoTune.

In the liner notes, Steve explains that his music comes

from three different realms in the Jewish context: Liturgical music for use in camps and synagogues, text based music that teaches Jewish ideals, and social justice music to heal the world.

This is an accurate summation of this album, and, indeed, of Steve’s entire body of work over the last 40 years. All three realms are the richer for his contributions. If you’re already familiar with it, this album will make a fine addition to your collection. If Steve’s music is new to you, then All Ways… is a great way to discover it.

Steve dedicates this project to his brother Alan, a remarkable soul lost to this world far too soon in life. Alan would be proud.

You can buy the album at:

To learn more about Steve Dropkin and his music visit www.stevedropkin.com

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kirvu–Rebecca Schwartz

 

Rebecca Schwartz is a gem. She has been successfully kirvucoverelevating simple, original songs to a whole new level. With each new album (this is her fourth Jewish album) it gets better. Rebecca’s first Jewish album, The Light of Shabbat, so fully showcases Rebecca’s gifts – her wide vocal range, sweet voice, excellent acoustic guitar playing skills, a gift for beautiful harmonies, and a striving for high production values, that I worried that her subsequent projects had no place left to go. Boy, was I wrong about that.

Her second Jewish album, Ahavah Rabah managed to layer more interesting arrangements and instrumentations on top of  all the previously mentioned positive attributes, and the same is true of P’tach Libi, her award-winning third album. Rebecca’s growth and maturation as a Jewish songwriter and performer has been fully evident, and this latest album continues the trend.

The opening song, Wherever You Go, I Will Go is a beautiful English retelling of the Ruth story that is quintessential Rebecca in style. It’s a great start to a great project.

It certainly takes guts for anyone to include a cover of a song like Leonard Cohen’s Halleluyah, although plenty of artists have done it.  Rebecca adds a new twist-although she’s not the first to try it- though I think it may be the first time it has been recorded this way-by squeezing in the full text of Psalm 150 into the melody.  All the times I’ve heard this done, it always seems a bit forced and clunky-sort of like that line from Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army” about it not mattering if you “try to fit a couple of extra syllables into a line.”  Kudos, Rebecca, for trying – your voice is lovely, and Scott Leader’s always tasteful piano sets an appropriate mood.

I love Rebecca’s middle-eastern-flavored settings, and Dodi Li is an enchanting and charming example of that. I hope it finds widespread use as another useful, original setting of that text.

Yotzeir has a pretty melody (though I find it does little to advance the meaning of the words of the prayer. How can one sing or say “Mah rabu ma’asekha, Ad”nai” without some inflection that matches the question being asked/the statement being made?) Nevertheless, it’s a nice listen, and I expect it will find its way into use many worship settings.

Lamdeini comes closer to an appropriate musical setting for the text, as it’s a very soulful and spiritual melody. Yet for all its beauty, for me, at least, it doesn’t fully capture all the emotion behind Leah Goldberg’s passionate words. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful song, gracefully and elegantly sung. The flute accompaniment on this song is very tasteful and worthy of mention.

Courageous Warrior (Eyshet Chayil) is a beautiful and haunting song. While the song stands well on its own, you might consider asking Rebecca what inspired it – as it becomes even more powerful then.

You Are Near, is based, Rebecca tells us, on parashat B’shalach. It is prettily sung, though I daresay the sweet style of Rebecca’s voice is in contrast to the more rock feel of the arrangement.

Do we really need another Adonai S’fatai? Probably not, but this new setting from Rebecca works nicely, and will surely find its way into use in worship settings. Someday, though, I’d love to hear Rebecca re-record the song with a fuller, expanded arrangement.

Holy, Holy, Holy is another rock/pop setting in which Rebecca’s sweet voice contrasts with the arrangement. I suspect, however, that the song would work equally as well in both acoustic and rock settings.

Esa Einai is another beautiful melody, though perhaps not the right melody for this text. The abrupt ending on the words “me’atah v’ad olam” made me wonder why sing “from now until forever” and then just stop? (Consider classical settings of the words, from the Latin mass, “non erit finis.”) Or perhaps I just wanted to keep hearing more of Rebecca’s lovely voice?

David’s Niggun is fun and a pleasant listen. Without any repeats it’s quite short-not exactly how one usually hears a niggun. Another candidate for an more elaborate arrangement on a future recording.

The Y’varech’cha is the song that doesn’t quite work for me. It’s really just another chanted version of the text – a pretty one, to be sure, and listen-worthy. It doesn’t go anywhere, however, and I feel so much more could have been done with this. Another song to be redone at some point?

Only A Matter of Time (Remix) was originally heard on Rebecca’s award winning 2009 album Pt’ach Libi. This is a much more fully-realized version, and works just as well as the simpler, original version. Again, I wish Rebecca’s voice was a bit more hard-edged in keeping with the more hard-hitting arrangement.

I would be remiss in my comments if I did not give a shout out to Scott Leader for his always professional producing, recording, and playing. It shows on this album as it does on every project with which he is associated.

Now that I’ve been really nit-picky about the album, allow me to say I think it’s a solid effort, and a worthy successor to her previous three Jewish albums. I don’t want this to be a capstone to her work, and I hope Rebecca will continue to grow in ways that will make her next album even better! To do so, she’s going to have to stretch a bit more than she did here. Go for it, Rebecca.

Kirvu is available on iTunes, CDBaby, OySongs, Amazon, or (non-digitally) direct from Rebecca’s website.

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

New Reviews Coming Soon-REALLY!

Sorry I’ve gotten behind folks, but in the pipeline are reviews for Steve Dropkin’s All Ways, Rebecca Schwartz’s Kirvu, and Eliana Light’s A New Light. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 22, 2013

New Reviews Coming Up Right After Purim

In the pipeline are reviews for the latest offerings from Steve Dropkin, Rebecca Schwartz, and a first release from Adam Bellows. Stay tuned. Be sure to read my review for Sababa’s Shalosh.

 

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