Saturday, May 22, 2010

UPDATED Review: Sababa – “It’s All Good”

“It’s All Good” by Sababa

Note: This review is updated from the initial version posted on 5/21/2010.

The title of Sababa’s new CD, “It’s all good” says it all. Wrapped up in a neat little musical package are a baker’s dozen of new, original song and settings. what’s clear and evident in every cut on the CD is how much fun and enjoyment that the groups members-Steve Brodsky, Robbi Sherwin, and Scott Leader-must have had putting this CD together. Their enthusiasm for the songs and each other shines through. This is a collection of songs to which you’ll enjoy listening over and over.

The album’s title song, “It’s All Good” is a fun romp. At first listen, I half expected to hear another song by Steve’s former band, ", Ma Tovu, but the song quickly blossomed into a new sound representative of the unique sound that is Sababa.  One quibble, in that I wasn’t quite sure where the steel drum sound fit in to the mix. Nevertheless, it’s a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, sing along kind of song.

“Beauty of the World” hearkens to my cry to set less frequently heard pieces of text to music, in this case, the blessing upon seeing a thing of rare beauty. It’s a great setting of the text, and quite singable.

In “I Saw God” all three members contribute their understandings. It’s a wordy song, reminiscent of the old Tom Lehrer “Folk Song Army” line “and it don’t matter if you have to squeeze a couple of extra syllables into a line.” All three do their best to wrap their diction around the fast-paced words, while maintaining a sense of melody - Steve and Robbi just a bit more successfully than Scott, in this case. Don’t get me wrong-Scott has a great voice, it just didn’t seem to express the same ease of diction with the fast-paced lyrics. Both “Beauty of the World” and “I Saw God” perhaps go on a bit longer than needed, but that’s a judgment call and a matter of personal taste.

This new “Adonai S’fatai” is a bit too “rock ballad” stylistically for me, so it’s more a listening experience. That said, I suspect it could be worked quite well into a live musical service in the right setting. (And I have now witnessed that being done – see my review of Sababa’s service at Sinai Temple.)

Robbi’s new setting of “Ani T’filati” is best summed up by the wry comment in the liner notes (which actually appear on the website, and not on the liner:)

A Zen Master once went to a hot dog vendor and said, “make me one with everything…”

It’s a song with potentially deep meaning, but this setting is more fun than philosophical. Not a criticism, just an observation – as I like the song.

“For Healing” is an absolutely gorgeous song with only one fault – an  intro and repetitive refrain on yai-lai-lai, which doesn’t really contribute anything to the song except to make the listener eager to get back to some actual words. This song, too, suffers from a few awkward syllabic/lyric moments. None of these petty concerns, however, are enough to take away from the overall beauty of  the song and the lyrics. Robbi demonstrates her sensitivity to the diversity within Judaism through the inclusion of a verse in Spanish – reminding us that, at least where she comes from (Texas) it’s not unusual to find yourself among lot of Jews speaking Spanish.

Now, we don’t need another “Mi Chamocha” but as long as we’re going to get one, why not this new setting by Brodsky? Its pseudo-middle-Eastern melody and rhythm give it an easy-to-sing, somewhat hypnotic feeling.  I only wish Steve had “sold it.” The performance seems a bit rote, and doesn’t match the celebratory spirits of the Hebrew text. I can imagine a more spirited performance of this new song, and hope to hear one some day!

We also don’t need yet another “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem.” Scott sums his new setting this way:

The words are classic and familiar. The melody is simple and repetitive, to have everyone singing along in no time. Sometimes less is more. ‘Nuf said.

In terms of my comments on this song, well…’nuf said already by Scott.

You’ll enjoy their new setting of “Barcheinu.” I liked it a lot, though I was disappointed in the choice of relying on a more “Brecker brothers” sax sound, and a musical style that leans more on Jimmy Buffet (and maybe even Springsteen.) For me, somehow the song seems better suited for a more classic 50s rock and roll sound.

“Darkest Time of Night” is Robbi’s stunning and plaintive tribute to the late Steve Meltzer. She asks “Do we ever take the time to let someone know how much they mean to us, before it's too late?” Too true, Robbi. I hope this song finds its way into the pantheon of songs used at times of memory and loss. This track has some of the finest and most tasteful accompaniment of the whole project.

Another “Hinei Mah Tov” you say? Yes! In this case, I can forgive, since it’s a cover of a fun setting by Hal Aqua of Los Lantzmun, set to a bouncy reggae-ish beat.

Robbi’s “Hu Ya’aseh” is not new, and even though Robbi sings it, you can almost think of it as a cover of her own song. Robbi decided top have a little fun with the song that she and Rich Glauber wrote some years back by adding a couple of local gospel singers to the mix. It still retains some of its reggae/rock feel, too. In fact, it’s a bit of a style mash-up. The background rhythm is, at times, almost Nashville country-rock, sometimes a little gospel, sometimes reggae-rock. It’s OK if the song has somewhat of an identity crisis, because no matter how you sing it or set it, it’s a fun time!

“Havdallah Sweet” perfectly rounds out the album. It’s a great way to transition from the spiritual space that the previous dozen songs took you and the into mundane, quotidian world that you’ll find yourslef back in after the album is over. As another setting of the Havdallah blessings it doesn’t really offer any compelling new melodies for it, but it’s pleasant enough. However, what makes it a sweet “suite” is the rockin’ version of the traditional “Eliyahu HaNavi” that completes it. Elijah himself would groove to it!

The production values on this project are high (as one can usually say about projects produced at Scott Leader’s own Southwest Studios.) while it may be a matter of personal taste and choice, I do have a quibble about the vocals on the project. For almost all of the songs, the vocals feel a little bit dry. While I appreciate the clarity this gives the voices and the lyrics, just a tad more reverb depth would have made me happier. Of the three, Brodsky’s voice is best able to stand up to the clean mix, with his full, solid, supported sound, though Robbi and Scott are no slouches. The musicianship is of high caliber all around.

Add this one to your collection. You’ll be glad you did.

“It’s All Good” is available direct from Sababa, as well as through the usual outlets like and iTunes.

Adrian A. Durlester


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