Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: Blessings – Peri Smilow

Peri Smilow Blessings CD Cover Some years back, just about the same time as the Hava Nashira songleading Workshops at OSRUI started in 1992, a bright star burst upon the contemporary Jewish liturgical music scene in the person of Peri Smilow and her album "Songs of Peace." Peri's golden voice and tasteful production values gave a series of familiar and new songs on the theme of peace a pleasant new presentation.  Her next album, Ashrey, in 1997,  featured the hit song of the same name, the powerful "Song for America, " along with one of my personal favorites, a new setting of "Ha Lachma Anya." Keeping with her 5-year cycle between releases, Peri next gave us "The Freedom Music Project" in 2002. This groundbreaking album features songs of Passover and Civil Rights, sung and backed by a vibrant young choir of Jewish and African-American voices. It's on my "must have" list of albums, and if you don't have a copy, rush right out and get one (or download it!)

Life sometimes intervenes, and Peri couldn't keep to her 5-year cycle for her latest release, but it was well worth the wait. It's so wonderful to hear Peri's golden voice again. This new CD features 8 new songs by Peri, a new setting of the Havdallah Blessings by a young Russian-Jewish-Israeli songwriter, along with two covers, "When I'm Gone" by Phil Ochs, and Janis Ian's "Joy."

Do I like this new album from Peri, and can I recommend it? The answer is an enthusiastic yes! Ask me why, however, and I might find it hard to answer, or at least answer in a way that makes sense. The closest I can come is to say that everything gels and comes together to create a top-notch production. Allow me a brief diversion for an analogy. For years, I had a career in theatrical production. A wise man once taught me about a philosophy which at first I thought was simply about shortcuts and saving time and energy. That philosophy was summed up in the acronym GEFTS - Good Enough For This Show. Despite outward appearances, this isn't about laziness, or getting away with the least possible effort. What it is about, is making sure that all elements of a production strive for the same (realistic, achievable, and communal) quality level. One can have a show with great actors and lousy lighting, or fabulous costumes and awful sound reinforcement. That usually doesn't work well. GEFTS is about making sure that every area strives for the best, without allowing any one area to so far surpass the others that it detracts. Some of the best shows I've seen are those in which all the elements achieve that same quality level. Sometimes that level was great, other times it was only mediocre. Yet even the mediocre productions were so well balanced that they congealed into a well-rounded whole, making them outstanding.

In the case of "Blessings." there's nothing mediocre about it. Every element is superb-songwriting, singing, arrangements, backup, studio production and mastering, etc. Similarly, there's nothing on it that so far outshines everything else that it detracts from the overall effect. Everything on this album is in balance. That's why I like it so much. Every song on the album is a great listen, and many are fun to sing, too!

It’s hard to miss when you’ve got Grammy-winning producer Ben Wisch on your project. Add to that world-class bass player Tony Levin, and the talented Elana Arian singing backup vocals, and you can see why this project came together at a top level, with production values as good as any typical high-end Indie album.

Peri starts off with a new setting of Psalm 96's "Shiru L'Adonai." Peri describes it as an instant camp creation, and it would certainly be fun to sing at camp (or services, or wherever.) Musically, I have a few quibbles. One is with the somewhat Phillip Glass-esque  repetitiveness, and the other with the melodic line, which, while it's aesthetically pleasing from a musician's perspective, I think its similar but not exactly the same lines with close intervals can make it harder to teach and harder to sing correctly. Of course, that's just my perspective. Peri's own liner notes report that just hours after writing and teaching it at camp, it was "performed by the very choir that inspired it." I particularly like the song's bridge, and think it's a great arrangement with superb production values.

The next song is the extremely powerful and emotional "Carry On." Peri's own life's journey has had it challenges, and this song speaks of the inspiration she received from relatives and friends along her own path to healing. For a song with such powerful lyrics, the presentation remains, even when it builds a bit near the end, somewhat understated. The song's strong, slow rhythm feels sometimes like one is carrying on a bit drudgingly, rather than with vibrant enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it's a truly inspiring song, by a gifted songwriter and great singer.

Peri also presents us with new settings of "Nishmat  Kol Chai" and "Ma'ariv Aravim" which are both pretty and pleasant; a "Priestly Blessing" that is truly beautiful, and a "Gomeil," the traditional prayer of one who survives a life-threatening situation, that is truly inspiring and uplifting. Peri's sweet voice graces these solid arrangements with tasteful instrumental and vocal backup. At once truly personal and majestic, Peri's "Gomeil" features a wonderful backup choir (more about that later) and is a piece that I hope begins to find wide use in the community, because it can work equally well, as it does on the album, in both a small, intimate way, and in a more glorious communal manner.

Peri also gives us two songs from a more feminist (and I don't mean that pejoratively) perspective. The first is the beautiful "Hineini" which is based on kavanot used at the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh. The second is the piece she was commissioned to write by the Women of Reform Judaism in celebration of the publication of  "The Torah: A Woman's Commentary." This milestone event is well served by Peri's "We Were There Too." It's a fun song, with an infectious beat, and with just enough of a touch of , jazzy, bluesy, gypsy, and other musical turns and twists to make it not-so-easy-to-classify the genre.

Peri was enthused with the music of the young Russian emigre to Israel Evgeny Leshenko. So much so that she recorded his setting of the Havdallah Blessings for this project, in hopes of introducing his music to the American Jewish community. It's a pleasant enough setting, and I do hope it finds some use (and I am sure it will) in congregations and camps. As I do with many songwriters, I'd like to encourage the young Evgeny to try setting some less frequently heard prayers, blessing, and p'sukim from our rich textual heritage to music, and put his obvious talents to work filling the gaps and voids in the spectrum of contemporary liturgical music. We've enough Sh'mas, Oseh Shaloms, and settings of the Havdallah Blessings to go around. That's not to say this isn't a version worth considering among the many others, for it truly is a musical and fun setting.

Finally, Peri presents two covers. The first is of Phil Och's "When I'm Gone." The arrangement is tight, and Peri's voice lends a new clarity and beauty to Phil's lyrics. Peri's take is somewhat laid back, and thus lacks urgency that's present in and drives the song's original incarnation. No matter, for Peri manages to deliver the same message in her own unique way.

The album ends with a cover of Janis Ian's "Joy." Peri manages to make this song her own, especially with the expert keyboard stylings of Josh Neslon in place of the guitar of the original recording. I do miss those few seconds of chorus that set apart the word "joy" on the original, nevertheless, Peri's version manages to get inside me just as Janis Ian's did.

In keeping with her penchant for working across boundaries, in “Gomeil” Peri’s backup singers are all from the Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, NJ. As I stated earlier, what makes this album work so well is that...well, everything works so well, and is top notch. It wasn't manic in some spots and depressive in others, though that's not to say it doesn't have variety. The mix of songs and styles in part of that certain something that this album has that makes it so good. Peri has a beautiful, lyric voice that's easy on the ears. The arrangements and backup musicians are all top notch and solid.  In summary, "Blessings" is worthy addition to your collection of Jewish music.

Janis Ian's "Joy" is perhaps the culmination of her 4 decade-long career. “‘Joy’ could be her ‘Forever Young’,” as Americana-uk.com reviewer Robin Cracknell put it. Let's hope "Blessings" is not the last we hear from Peri, because she, and her music truly are as the title says.

Blessings is available from the following sources:

Peri has a website: www.perismilow.com 
and a FaceBook page

Review: Reunion - Julie Silver

reunion CD cover

What do an old wicker chair, St. Patrick, Carole King, a Hollywood score writer and Torah have in common, and what are they doing together on a contemporary Jewish album? Leave it to Julie Silver to bring these disparate elements and more together in a musically stunning and aurally beautiful new album - Reunion. It has been far too long since we've had a new project from Julie. It was worth the wait. Reunion is the work of a mature, sophisticated, experienced artist, yet retains the spirit of the seeker that characterizes much of Julie's earlier work. Julie has always been a gifted songwriter, her words expressing the angst, peace, uncertainty, commitment, confusion, clarity, insecurity, pride and more that we all have in our lives. In Reunion, Julie's ability to turn everyday life situations and experiences into spiritual encounters imbued with teachings and meanings has achieved a new level of artistry and skill.

The album begins with the infectious "Step by Step." It's the perfect way to start this brave walk into the water that is "Reunion."

Songs like "The Barefoot Sisters" challenge us to come to terms with who we are, and teach us the lesson of Yitro - that we can and should learn from those outside our little circle. Her cover of Carole King's "Been to Canaan" aptly demonstrates that expressions that touch our Jewish souls can come from anywhere. In "Monica's Chair" Julie sings lovingly of the healing and comforting power of memory.

In "Where Am I?" Julie questions the often exclusionary content of our sacred texts, in this particular case, citing parashat Matot holding males accountable for vows yet relegating responsibility for women's vows to their fathers of husbands. May it be that her question does not fall on deaf ears.

There is no shortage of liturgical content. First, there's a song written many years ago that has found its way into regular use at many services, the inspiring "O Guide My Steps." This song has a special place in my heart, as I was there when it was created by (now Cantor) Debra Winston with contribution of a Hebrew lyric counter-melody by Julie. I know the emotion behind the initial genesis of song, and it still brings tears to my eyes. It's nice to hear a recording of the song by Julie, whose voice is perfectly matched with that of Rabbi Joe Black in this emotional duet. Oddly, this arrangement is light on the Hebrew counter-melody, spending most of its time on the English verses. Humility, perhaps?

There's a beautiful, melodic, peaceful and somewhat hypnotic setting of the healing prayer "R'faeinu" Julie graces us with a new setting based on the Y'hiyu l'ratzon/May the words entitled "Meditation" that is plaintively simple and hauntingly beautiful. No masks or technical tricks separate us from the outpourings of Julie's heart in this song, which allows her natural voice and natural vibrato to be heard. It's nice to see an artist willing to take that risk. This is generally true for most of the songs on this album - we get "natural" Julie. So many times, what you get in a live performance disappoints compared to a recording. Not so in Julie's case, and in particular on this album.  Close your eyes when listening to "Reunion"and it will really be like hearing her live.

Julie also includes four songs  written by the talented Hollywood composer David Kates. "Circles" explores the cycles in our lives, and dealing with loss and finding continuity.  in  "Lead the Way" expresses the hope of every parent and teacher for the children. There's also a gorgeous setting of "Dodi Li." The album closes with David Kates' joyful, spirited setting of "Halleluyah (Psalm 150.)" Like any good project should do, this final song leaves you wanting more. We're waiting, Julie!

There are those who might object to a Jewish album having seemingly tangential, even secular songs included. I'm not one of those. Judaism is not just a religion or culture. It is a way of thinking, living, doing, being. All our life experiences, from the quotidian to the awesome are in conversation with and informed by and inform our understanding of Judaism. Julie's songs are the authentic expression of that process, and we are all richer for her sharing that with us in her music.

Reunion is available from Soundswrite/URJ Books & Music

Julie Silver’s website is www.juliesilver.com

Julie’s FaceBook page www.facebook.com/people/Julie-Silver//1071015337

Julie’s Twitter Page www.twitter.com/julieannsilver