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


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