Saturday, May 25, 2013

All Ways…–Steve Dropkin: Another Winner


The title says it all – this is, indeed, Steve Dropkin in all ways, inall ways cover every way. You know how some people speak of certain Stephen Sondheim musicals as having been written for Sondheim fans? Well, and honestly, I don’t mean this as a pejorative, this is an album for Dropkin fans. However, it is also a great way for people who don’t know Steve’s music to discover it and fall in love with it. Either way, it’s a winner.

It may just be because I have known Steve and his music for a long time, and because of my particular musical skills, that I can recognize a Steve Dropkin song pretty quickly. Steve has certain unique styles, rhythmic, lyric, and chordal patterns and other common components that identify it. That’s not a bad thing. I can say the same for many great bands and great artists. (Tell me you can’t identify a Mumford & Sons tune within seconds!) Yes, identifying is harder with some artists and bands, who have greater and wider variance in the makeup of their songs and recordings. And I’m not saying that Steve hasn’t produced works in many different styles over the years – he has. There’s been great musical variety in his output. Still, it has been my experience that he works best when he stays within his sweet spot, musically. And this album is right in the middle of that sweet spot. It has all the things that demonstrate that Steve is a great songwriter and performer.

It also demonstrates Steve’s long-time mastery over production. Steve is not the least bit afraid to admit that song production uses methods and tricks – things often referred to as “ear candy.” Steve has always had a gift for knowing just how much “ear candy” to use, and where to use it.  It also doesn’t hurt that Steve combines his production savvy with that of another master, Troy Dexter, who continues, year after year, to help many Jewish artists create projects with the best production values around. Steve and Troy have a long history of working together, and we’re all the beneficiaries of that.

I think I say this in just about every review I write these days that we don’t need more settings of the same liturgy for which there already exist so many usable settings already. However, it occurs to me that if everyone followed my advice on that score, we might miss out of some wonderful new settings. If you look at the scope of Steve’s work over the years, you’ll see that he has  been slowly working his way through the liturgy, and each new project brings us new settings which can and often do find their way into usage at services around the country (and indeed the world.)  I may believe we do not need yet another Mi Chamocha, L’cha Dodi, Bar’chu, Shalom Aleichem, Adonai S’fatai, Or Zarua and Shiviti (though there are admittedly fewer of those.) Nevertheless, every one of these new settings from Steve is solid and a potentially useful addition to the canon. Steve has given me cause to reflect on my feelings about Jewish songwriters constantly revisiting the same pieces of liturgy and text, something I intend to write about on this blog shortly.

The album opens with a setting of the Bar’chu, that, after it’s haunting opening, morphs into a simple, singable pop melody that could easily find its way into rotation in camps and synagogues.

Or Zarua is classic Dropkin. It has all the hallmarks of Steve’s solid songwriting, and is performed in classic Dropkin style. I was hoping for a little more vocal backup, especially on the chorus,  and I’d love to see a choral setting of this (or maybe I’ll just write one myself.)

Shiviti delivers a hopeful message wrapped in a pleasant and easy on the ears musical package. It may be one of the most compelling settings Steve has ever penned, and it truly conveys the meaning of the text.

Mi Chamocha is a fun new setting. Even though he’s writing for a worship setting, Steve is never afraid to give the participants credit for being able to quickly learn and sing melodies that challenge as they are a step above simple. Thanks for that, Steve.

Then, almost as if to prove that last statement wrong, Steve gives us a L’cha Dodi that  is truly simple and easy to learn. It deserves to find its way into rotation at synagogues and camps in the same way his Al Shlosha and Ein Keiloheinu have done.

Joss Wheedon would like Steve’s new Adonai Sifatai (Firefly/Serenity fans, give it a listen and see if you know what I mean. There’s this underlying hint of wild west country just under the surface.) It’ll work at services quite well, even though it won’t have all the beautiful musical ear candy behind it which makes it a great listening experience on the album.

Grant Us Peace would make a nice change of pace to use in a service, if you’re looking for an English language setting. It’s fun and singable enough to stand on its own outside of services as well.

Shalom Aleichem is….another Shalom Aleichem. Serviceable. Pleasant. Fun to sing. Given that I’m re-examining my ideas about new versions of texts for which we already have a plethora of settings, I won’t rush to judgment on this one. At first I thought I might be less likely to work this into my rotation of Shalom Aleichems than say, perhaps the L’Cha Dodi, Mi Chamocha, or Adonai Sifatai on this new album, but it might make for a nice change of pace. It sort of grows on you.

On the other hand, we probably could use more settings of Veizeh Hu, and I hope this one finds it way into use at camp and religious school. I’m a little disappointed it doesn’t include more of the Hebrew text, but the message is all there, and well-delivered, musically.

The song I listened to first when I received the album was World Yet To Come. It’s a classic, from Steve’s earlier days with the group Ketzev. In this new version, Steve has replaced his former partners, Susan and Lisa, with his daughter Ariel. What a pleasant and fortuitous choice. (Ariel joins Steve on four other numbers, ably providing backup vocals. Talent runs in the family.)

Build a New Day is a worthy successor to the series of anthem songs that Steve has managed to include on all his projects over the years.  In fact, for me, it wouldn’t be a Steve Dropkin album without one or more of these songs. To be honest, they’re all a little similar stylistically – If Not Now When, Keep Our Hopes Alive, Light to the Nations,  We All Stand Together, This Is Our Promise and some others. (OK, On That Day didn’t really have one of these-Withstanding the Trend took a different stylistic turn, though it was still an anthem piece of sorts.) These songs are Steve’s musical equivalent of ending a show with an medley of patriotic songs – they are uplifting, inspiring, and a challenge to us to live up to our ideals and beliefs. Build a New Day does not disappoint as an anthem.

I would be remiss if I did not add a note on Steve’s continuing improvement as a singer. With each new project his vocal skills show the evidence of his effort to be an even better singer than he already was. I think I can safely say that these improvements are as much, if not more, the result of Steve’s efforts than improvements in technologies like AutoTune.

In the liner notes, Steve explains that his music comes

from three different realms in the Jewish context: Liturgical music for use in camps and synagogues, text based music that teaches Jewish ideals, and social justice music to heal the world.

This is an accurate summation of this album, and, indeed, of Steve’s entire body of work over the last 40 years. All three realms are the richer for his contributions. If you’re already familiar with it, this album will make a fine addition to your collection. If Steve’s music is new to you, then All Ways… is a great way to discover it.

Steve dedicates this project to his brother Alan, a remarkable soul lost to this world far too soon in life. Alan would be proud.

You can buy the album at:

To learn more about Steve Dropkin and his music visit

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kirvu–Rebecca Schwartz


Rebecca Schwartz is a gem. She has been successfully kirvucoverelevating simple, original songs to a whole new level. With each new album (this is her fourth Jewish album) it gets better. Rebecca’s first Jewish album, The Light of Shabbat, so fully showcases Rebecca’s gifts – her wide vocal range, sweet voice, excellent acoustic guitar playing skills, a gift for beautiful harmonies, and a striving for high production values, that I worried that her subsequent projects had no place left to go. Boy, was I wrong about that.

Her second Jewish album, Ahavah Rabah managed to layer more interesting arrangements and instrumentations on top of  all the previously mentioned positive attributes, and the same is true of P’tach Libi, her award-winning third album. Rebecca’s growth and maturation as a Jewish songwriter and performer has been fully evident, and this latest album continues the trend.

The opening song, Wherever You Go, I Will Go is a beautiful English retelling of the Ruth story that is quintessential Rebecca in style. It’s a great start to a great project.

It certainly takes guts for anyone to include a cover of a song like Leonard Cohen’s Halleluyah, although plenty of artists have done it.  Rebecca adds a new twist-although she’s not the first to try it- though I think it may be the first time it has been recorded this way-by squeezing in the full text of Psalm 150 into the melody.  All the times I’ve heard this done, it always seems a bit forced and clunky-sort of like that line from Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army” about it not mattering if you “try to fit a couple of extra syllables into a line.”  Kudos, Rebecca, for trying – your voice is lovely, and Scott Leader’s always tasteful piano sets an appropriate mood.

I love Rebecca’s middle-eastern-flavored settings, and Dodi Li is an enchanting and charming example of that. I hope it finds widespread use as another useful, original setting of that text.

Yotzeir has a pretty melody (though I find it does little to advance the meaning of the words of the prayer. How can one sing or say “Mah rabu ma’asekha, Ad”nai” without some inflection that matches the question being asked/the statement being made?) Nevertheless, it’s a nice listen, and I expect it will find its way into use many worship settings.

Lamdeini comes closer to an appropriate musical setting for the text, as it’s a very soulful and spiritual melody. Yet for all its beauty, for me, at least, it doesn’t fully capture all the emotion behind Leah Goldberg’s passionate words. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful song, gracefully and elegantly sung. The flute accompaniment on this song is very tasteful and worthy of mention.

Courageous Warrior (Eyshet Chayil) is a beautiful and haunting song. While the song stands well on its own, you might consider asking Rebecca what inspired it – as it becomes even more powerful then.

You Are Near, is based, Rebecca tells us, on parashat B’shalach. It is prettily sung, though I daresay the sweet style of Rebecca’s voice is in contrast to the more rock feel of the arrangement.

Do we really need another Adonai S’fatai? Probably not, but this new setting from Rebecca works nicely, and will surely find its way into use in worship settings. Someday, though, I’d love to hear Rebecca re-record the song with a fuller, expanded arrangement.

Holy, Holy, Holy is another rock/pop setting in which Rebecca’s sweet voice contrasts with the arrangement. I suspect, however, that the song would work equally as well in both acoustic and rock settings.

Esa Einai is another beautiful melody, though perhaps not the right melody for this text. The abrupt ending on the words “me’atah v’ad olam” made me wonder why sing “from now until forever” and then just stop? (Consider classical settings of the words, from the Latin mass, “non erit finis.”) Or perhaps I just wanted to keep hearing more of Rebecca’s lovely voice?

David’s Niggun is fun and a pleasant listen. Without any repeats it’s quite short-not exactly how one usually hears a niggun. Another candidate for an more elaborate arrangement on a future recording.

The Y’varech’cha is the song that doesn’t quite work for me. It’s really just another chanted version of the text – a pretty one, to be sure, and listen-worthy. It doesn’t go anywhere, however, and I feel so much more could have been done with this. Another song to be redone at some point?

Only A Matter of Time (Remix) was originally heard on Rebecca’s award winning 2009 album Pt’ach Libi. This is a much more fully-realized version, and works just as well as the simpler, original version. Again, I wish Rebecca’s voice was a bit more hard-edged in keeping with the more hard-hitting arrangement.

I would be remiss in my comments if I did not give a shout out to Scott Leader for his always professional producing, recording, and playing. It shows on this album as it does on every project with which he is associated.

Now that I’ve been really nit-picky about the album, allow me to say I think it’s a solid effort, and a worthy successor to her previous three Jewish albums. I don’t want this to be a capstone to her work, and I hope Rebecca will continue to grow in ways that will make her next album even better! To do so, she’s going to have to stretch a bit more than she did here. Go for it, Rebecca.

Kirvu is available on iTunes, CDBaby, OySongs, Amazon, or (non-digitally) direct from Rebecca’s website.

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

New Reviews Coming Soon-REALLY!

Sorry I’ve gotten behind folks, but in the pipeline are reviews for Steve Dropkin’s All Ways, Rebecca Schwartz’s Kirvu, and Eliana Light’s A New Light. Stay tuned.