Little Taste of Torah Is A Tasty Meal
Jewish children's music has come a long way. There was a time when parents might politely tolerate listening to Jewish kid's music for the sake of their children. Times have certainly changed. While there are still plenty of Jewish children's albums that appeal mostly to kids, more and more artists are producing projects that add the quality songwriting and higher production values necessary to have their work appeal to the parents as well. The music of Peter and Ellen Allard has proven, over time, to enthrall adults as much as children. Perhaps some of that is because they help bring out the inner child in each of us (which, for anyone who has ever seen Ellen Allard's high-energy stage presence is no surprise.) I believe it is also because the Allards take their work seriously, and approach it with passion and intelligence. The Allard's latest project, "Little Taste of Torah" easily meets the listening (and value) test for both children and adults. It's a CD I highly recommend to both.
The songs from the Allard's previous two Jewish CDs, "Bring the Sabbath Home," and "Sing Shalom: Songs for the Jewish Holidays" have quickly become standards for the songleaders and music educators who are out there teaching our children, your humble reviewer included. This new CD has been long awaited and is a more than worthy successor to the previous two Jewish CDs (as well as the Allard's pantheon of secular children's CDs.)
Overall, the new CD has more of a rock than folk type feel to it, and that shows the Allards are working to keep up with their audiences. Peter and Ellen are clearly striving for a more mature listening audience, especially evident in songs like "Be Holy" and "There's a Time." If this CD is somewhat of a crossover attempt from the realm of children’s music to a broader audience , it is a successful one. The title song, "Little Taste of Torah" is itself a song that will easily appeal to young and old. There's truly something for everyone.
The themes explored (and taught) by the Allards on this CD are varied, as are the musical styles. They include environmental values ("For Trees",) gossip ("Lashon Hara") and our our obligation to "Be Holy." The Allards aren't afraid of tackling the subject of G"d, asking, in a style reminiscent of Native American chants, the musical question "How D'ya Know" that G"d is here? You can even find G"d in a peanut butter sandwich, say the Allards--uite convincingly, I might add.
The funniest song on the CD is actually one of most serious in the lesson it attempts to teach - about the power of language and the dangers of engaging in "Lashon Hara." Learning the lyrics and singing them clearly is as much fun (and perhaps as much of a challenge) as learning a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song. You almost want to hear an encore where Ellen sings it really fast!
There are, of course, a few holiday songs. The touching "May You Be Sealed" is a thoughtful song for Yom Kippur, beautifully sung and accompanied. Even before appearing on this CD, "Shofar Blast" had already become a classic. Jewish children (and adults!) the world 'round are singing and learning the sounds of the shofar from it. Now, many more will get the opportunity to hear the song done by its creators, and that alone is reason to rejoice. I was a bit disappointed to not hear children's voices singing, and the adults singing the backup instead seem to emote a feeling that is more self-indulgent studio fun than the enthusiastic sound of children imitating the shofar. This is a great song that perhaps deserved more than it got in production, especially given it's enormous advance popularity. Nevertheless, it’s still a winner.
To their earlier song about the crossing of the reed sea, "Standing at the Sea," they have now added "Nachshon," and "Wall of Water." "Nachshon" is one of the songs on this CD that shows it's not just for kids, combining a hard rock style and maybe even a hint of Beatles. It might be the best and most mature cut on the CD, though I might have preferred a violin to electric guitar in the instrumental break. In contrast, "Wall of Water" is a bluesy-jazzy-country bit of fun, with its own built-in shtick and choreography which you won't be able to resist.
"Gotta Groove" is Peter and Ellen's clever homage to the asher yatzar prayer from the morning liturgy, and groovin' is what you'll do to this song. It starts out quite busy at the beginning, so it doesn't leave itself much room to build until the inevitable key-change near the end, and at times the lyrics "Thank You G"d" feel a bit understated. No matter--this one is sure to get you up and moving, and thinking about the miracle that is the human body and its workings.
Though Peter has always been featured singing on few songs on the earlier CDs, on this one Peter gets a real chance to shine. My first thought, when I heard "Baby Moses" was "you go, Peter!" I dare you to resist dancing, clapping, or otherwise enjoying this one. The rocking "Shake, Shake, Shake" (no, it's not yet another lulav shaking song-this one is about tzedakah, and shaking the tzedakah box,) also features Peter singing, with great instrumental backup. (The gratuitous little "shake it, baby" tag at the end didn't quite work for me, but kids seem to enjoy it.) "There's a Time," a setting of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1 is well written and performed, and it's got a great bridge with some nice vocals, instrumentation, and a flute solo. It isn't as solid as most of the other offerings on this album, and, as a new setting of a familiar text isn't likely to eclipse the attempts of other notable songwriters and performers who took a "turn" setting it to song. This song still has its purpose under the Sun, so enjoy!
Overall, the production values are great, if a bit uneven in spots. There's some truly fine instrumental work on the CD, most notably Scott Leader's piano on "May You Be Sealed," "Baby Moses," "Be Holy," and the aforementioned flute solo on "There's a Time." There was one instrumental choice which I found odd, though I admit it is probably just my own personal taste - featuring a saxophone on the "Sh'ma Lullaby." The saxophone here has a mellow feel to it, but it is more the relaxed feel of a smoky jazz club than a child's bedroom. The instrumentation is a bit busy at times, obscuring the lyrics, and the EQ on Ellen's vocal sometimes has a bit too much on the high-end, more odd choices for my taste in a lullaby. All this will probably be just fine for most listeners, especially with the more lullaby-like keyboard patch and guitar sounds. It's a beautiful song, beautifully sung by Ellen, and a great way to introduce the practice of the bedtime Sh'ma to both children and their parents.
On this album there are a few abrupt starts, odd endings, and the like-at least for my tastes. Bear in mind that I'm a tough critic, and awfully nit-picky--so don't get me wrong. "Little Taste of Torah" bears all the hallmarks of the Allard's talents and the great production values we've come to expect from projects placed in Scott Leader's capable hands. I loved this CD, and you will too. Go out and buy a CD or down-loadable copy now. (Well, the official release date is Nov. 1, 2009, but you can pre-order copies right now at www.soundswrite.com You’ll be glad you did.
When Peter and Ellen taught the new song “For Trees” at the annual Hava Nashira Songleading workshop last June in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, apropos to that great state, it was quickly parodied by Ross and Malka Wolman in the delightful “For Cheese.” Let me tell you, there is nothing cheesy about Peter and Ellen Allard’s new recording. Raise your hands up high--for all the world to see--every one stand up - for "Little Taste of Torah."
Adrian A. Durlester
October 19, 2009