Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: Todd Herzog-A Shelter of Peace


Artist: Todd Herzog
Album: A Shelter of Piece
Available on: artist's website, iTunes, CDBaby

Summary: A great new CD from a rising star on the Jewish music scene. Get it. You’ll like it.

Other CDs: Bridging the Gap, Proverbs, Everyday Blessings (a children’s CD)

Looking at the contents of Todd Herzog’s latest CD, “A Shelter of Peace” , a Shabbat oriented CD, my “oy, not another setting of [fill in the blank…]” alarms were ringing, yet when I put in the CD and started to listen, the alarms began to be silenced by what I was hearing. This project is different from Todd’s previous efforts on “Bridging the Gap” and “Proverbs.” This CD focuses on songs and arrangements usable in a service setting, and specifically a Friday evening (Reform style) service. It is also a showcase for Todd’s beautiful voice.

No, we don’t need another “Hinei Mah Tov,” but the new version with which Todd opens this CD is a pleasant enough beginning to this excursion through Shabbat. We also don’t need another setting of the Shabbat candle blessing but listening to Todd’s voice and haunting melody one can easily overlook this. The same can be said for this new setting of the “Bar’chu.”

Todd’s  “Mi Chamocha” is hauntingly beautiful adaptation of the version we first heard on his “Bridging the Gap” CD. Though personally I don’t find slower, ballad-like settings all that appropriate to the text, this arrangement works. On “Bridging the Gap” this song definitely feels more celebratory, though that version would work only in a service where more of a rock feel would fit.  In this new arrangement, when Todd sings “Ad*nai yimloch l’olam va’ed” the sense of awe and majesty come through, but the celebratory sense of the biblical text isn’t as apparent. I still found myself enjoying the song and looking forward to the next one.

Next comes the CD’s title track, “A Shelter of Peace,” a setting of the Hashkiveinu prayer . Todd sings a playful echoing dance with the choir, to a solid beat held back just that little bit so that it doesn’t quite tumble over the edge into the realm of “fast” which could have caused the song to lose its sheltering feel. Sometimes it does seem the lyrics are a bit rushed to fit the melody lines, especially for the choir. This song (and the following Prayer for Healing) will work great in congregational/group settings with people naturally filling in the echoes provided by the choir. This song works equally well on its own as a performance piece, too. It’s rare that a song can do both well.

Once again, Todd’s stellar voice makes “Prayer for Healing” a beautiful, prayerful setting. Another adaptation of a song originally found on “Bridging the Gap”  I was surprised to hear another choral echo setting right after “A Shelter of Peace” (Todd explains this was a matter of wanting to keep the song order matching the service order as usually followed at his synagogue.) The original version on “Bridging the Gap” is folksy and the choir in that arrangement feels right. I have to say that the choir added less to this piece than than it does on the other version of the song, or the previous song on this CD, “A Shelter of Peace.”  The choir’s singing and lyrics weren’t quite as tight here, and at times the choir felt a bit “angelic” for my taste. It’s a little ironic-I found that, in this arrangement and recording of the song, the empty musical spaces designed for choir/congregation echoes benefited less from having the choir fill them than in the preceding song (or the version on “Bridging the Gap,”) both of which would have worked just as well without the choir. The choir’s choral echoes felt robotic and didn’t really carry any sense of the meaning of the words. I think maybe the choir needed a little of the rejuvenation they were singing/praying for in this song.  Todd has one strange oddity here in that a certain nasal feature in his voice absorbs his “n” sounds and makes the added text “r’fanah lanu” sound like “r’fanah lalu.” (This is also true on the “Bridging the Gap” version.)

“V’shamru” has a great Middle Eastern flavor, and it definitely makes you want to get up and dance. It is a fun and sing-able new setting that I’m sure I and others will use.  It has that sort of susurim feel of the sound of the muezzin’s call that infects so many Sephardi-style tunes. Todd does a great job with it and you’ll find yourself singing along without realizing it.

Todd really shines performing Steve Richard’s “R’tzei.” It’s actually quite nice to hear this piece sung by a non-Cantor. I’ve known for years that this piece works in both formal and informal musical settings and it’s nice to see Todd demonstrate this. While I enjoyed the choir contributing to this less formal performance there were times I wish the choir had been singing in a more formal style, letting just the accompaniment flavor the piece less formally. I think that could have allowed Todd to shine even brighter than he did.  I also think adding a bass to this track might have helped make it the perfect blend between formal and informal. A question, however - what’s with the “le-eh-tzi-yon” pronunciation? I know choir directors will sometimes ask their choirs to give a stronger, more vowel-ized sh’va sound when dealing with Hebrew where a letter with a sh’va falls on a  longer or extended note or a series of passing notes, to make it easier to sing, but here it almost turns it into another word, and is just too heavy-handed to be appropriate. The musical solution to this is called elision or syncope, which involve the dropping of sounds within a word.  What we get here is called epenthesis, the adding of sounds to words to ease pronunciation. Doesn’t work for me here. Nevertheless this is a stunningly beautiful performance of a classic.

In “Shalom Rav” Todd once again manages to overcome my sense of “oy, not another setting of [fill in the blank]” with a song that’s pretty, sing-able, and enjoyable. The backup vocals fit right it and really support the song. Also, this song has a few more of those interesting musical moments that I found absent from some of the other original compositions (more on that later in this review.) In some ways, this song would have a been a good candidate for adding the choir, and I like the song enough that I might take a hand at a choral arrangement myself, composer permitting. It’s another setting that works equally well in formal and informal worship settings. Todd’s knack for writing songs that do this will serve him well.

In Todd’s performance of Danny Maseng’s “Elohai N’tzor” we once again get to hear his great voice stand out. I have to admit to a complete enchantment with the sound of Danny Maseng’s voice, and nobody can sing his songs like he can. (In fact, few can sing anybody’s songs as well as Danny Maseng can.) It was fun to hear the setting of this song on the Starbucks available Pink Martini holiday album “Joy to the World” which worked because it was different enough. Todd’s version strikes a nice balance between different and “you can’t beat the original.” In fact, Todd’s voice sounds so wonderful on this track I found myself asking “why bring the chorus in so soon?” and wishing that the choral parts were less playful and closer to the original so they didn’t distract from Todd  (though that did help add a nice element to the overall feel.)

“Y’hiu L’ratzon” is once again pleasant listening, but at this point on the CD I was reaching the limit of my tolerance for “yet another setting of…” and this particular settings works the least for me of any song on the CD. There’s nothing wrong with it. Todd’s voice is pure and pleasant, as is the accompanying piano. It’s thankfully a very short cut-as if Todd knew that just once through was enough. Maybe that’s why the title uses the unusually short transliteration  of “Y’hiu?”

“Shehecheyanu” could have easily been another “Y’hiu L’ratzon.” Though the song doesn’t have a strong hook, or seem to have anything that would cause me to recommend it as a choice over dozens of other settings, I must admit to being captured by it and wanting to sing along. It’s sweet to sing and a good listen, if a bit understated. It’s a setting I know I will use.  The world might not need another setting of Shehecheyanu, but it is richer for having this one added. It’s not easy for a new song to get past my “not another version” threshold but somehow this one snuck in and captured me.

“Shalom Aleichem/Calling All Angels” starts (and ends) with a great riff of the Dveykus “Shalom Aleichem” by Shmuel Brazil and Label Scharfman and transitions into a rockin’ version of Train’s “Calling All Angels.” It’s the most fun and upbeat thing on the CD except for the “V’shamru” and also the song with the highest production values and greatest deviation from the otherwise primary acoustic feel. (Yes, folks, while not too evident on the rest of this CD, Todd can really rock. His previous CDs, “Bridging the Gap” and “Proverbs”  both contain evidence of that, even with their own strong acoustic sensitivities.) True to the overall feel of this project, even this track is carefully and eloquently restrained to keep it from falling over the edge and into the realm of totally non-acoustic.

I have heard (too) many people perform Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (It’s already passed my “overused” threshold-I think even Leonard asked folks to give it a rest back in 2009.) Listening to Todd’s rendition on this CD was far more pleasant listening than most of the others. It is unapologetically spiritual and questioning in Todd’s interpretation. At the very end, he starts to go into falsetto and you hear the hint of a yodel creeping in and wonder “is he gonna make it” and then the yodel sort of swirls over and he’s there, only to go on to a final and far higher crowning falsetto note. Nice, Todd. Gutsy, too. You knew he had the falsetto range because it was evident at the end of “Elohai N’tzor”  but this was simply, well, as Peter Griffin would say, “sweet.” Sweet and plaintive are the words for this rendition of a song that could easily be otherwise given it’s ability evoke a wide range of emotions and interpretations

Kudos to the Temple Solel choir for their work and contribution to this CD. Their additions, on the whole, make the project better. That being said, while the chorus at times soars to majestic heights, at other times it lacks a true blended choral sound, with the distinctive voices of individual choristers impinging on the vocal harmony and blend. In keeping with the overall acoustic feel of the project the sound of the choir is kept fairly dry, and I’m wondering if just a touch more reverb might have served to soften the sometimes sharp edges of the choir. The chorus also seems a little light on lower male voices, a lack which shows up most obviously during “R’tzei.”  At the same time, their highest upper register can be a bit squeaky and thin too.

Todd is much more a performer in the acoustic vein, and such performances are, generally, best heard with minimal enhancement in the audio engineering. (In a sort of “simpler is often more complex” way, it’s been my experience that good recording and mixing techniques for acoustic artists takes even greater effort and better engineering to get the acoustic sound just right.) Some artists, producers, and engineers unfortunately err on the side of caution making things a bit too dry in feel.  The recording, mixing, and mastering on this project have, for the most part managed to find a nice balance between capturing the essentially acoustic feel and enhancing it.

Todd’s songwriting is pretty straightforward and generally devoid of the musical tricks that have become the stock in trade of many contemporary songwriters. This gives it a pure, simple style. At times, I actually found this a drawback – I found myself wishing that Todd had taken a more interesting musical turn with a melody, chord progression, or the structure of a piece. However, unlike the work of other songwriters to which I have listened recently, Todd succeeds in keeping his songs interesting enough despite their simplicity, and without resorting to what some in the trade call “ear candy.” One other note- it’s disappointing that the CD doesn’t include lyrics and translations. You can’t assume every listener is going to understand the Hebrew. [In all fairness, I see that lyrics are available on Todd’s website,, but, as of this writing, some songs are still missing.]

In his liner notes, Todd explains his journey in creating a Shabbat album, concluding in the end that he hopes this CD will “help in some small way to enhance the celebration and rejuvenation that is Shabbat.”  Though overall the CD is a bit understated to be a celebration it is certainly rejuvenating. “A Shelter of Peace” can help the listener find their peaceful Shabbat shelter amidst the storms of life. Good work Todd. Looking forward to the next effort.

Adrian A. Durlester
May 6, 2011

[Disclosure: The artist provided the author with a review copy of this CD. All CDs received for review are then donated to Jewish institutions for their use.]