Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Music video: HaShilitzim, "Kabbalat Shabbat Medley"

A relatively new trio of Israeli triplets, Moishe, Nati, and Pini Shilitz, collectively known as HaShilitzim, have debuted with a medley of songs taken from the Kabbalas Shabbos davening on Friday nights, including two Shlomo Carlebach numbers and a neat riff on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". If this catches your interest, check them out on Facebook. Hat tip to The Jewish Insights for the find.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Music video: Yonatan Razel, "Neve Tlaot"

The new debut single for Israeli singer-songwriter Yonatan Razel's upcoming third album. A moving piano ballad about life's ups and downs.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Retrospective: Moshiach Oi!, or When Nostalgia Fails You

You ever revisit something you loved years ago, only to find it's not as good as you remember it? And then agonize about sharing that disappointment with a budding internet audience who might still really like that thing?

I remember first coming across New York's Breslov-based hardcore punk band Moshiach Oi! back in high school and getting extremely excited. As an enthusiastic fan of hardcore (fine, metalcore and post-hardcore, but same umbrella) who had begun to sour on Jewish music, I saw their early songs as the starting point for a slew of heavy Jewish bands who would compete with Christian metalcore acts like Demon Hunter and Norma Jean. Obviously that hasn't happened (yet) but I was still fascinated. I was even more excited a few years later when I heard their second album, This World is Nothing, with its darker lyrics, heavier tone, and mosh-worthy lead single (see below).

So naturally, now that I have this here blog thing that spreads my ramblings all over the web, I had the idea to do a retrospective on them. So a few days ago (before some computer problems left me unable post for those few days) I sat down, re-listened to both of the band's albums, and...

...And then something happened. All of sudden, I started to notice flaws in the music: the sincere-but-kinda-simplistic lyrics, the somewhat repetitive songs that all started to blend together, the way frontman Yishai Romanoff seemed to be struggling to keep up with the music, the weird bits of country and reggae-ska that now were less intriguing experimentation and more out-of-place distraction.

To be clear, I'm in no way dismissing Moshiach Oi! as a band. Romanoff can shred his throat with the best of them; guitarist Mike Wagner, bassist Mitchell Harrison, and drummer Paul Alpert are all excellent musicians who consistently provide a solid groove behind said throat-shredder; and "Got Nothing On Me" is still an awesome song. I'm sure time and future albums will only improve their sound. Yet their albums so far still feel a bit flat when listened to without the filter of youth and adrenaline.
Now, obviously I'm not the first to experience this kind of thing. Nearly everyone over a certain age has felt the crushing disappointment of trying to indulge your nostalgia after your critical brain has already kicked in. (For those who haven't yet, re-watch Space Jam.) Some things just can only be fully enjoyed within a specific time frame.

So I'll turn it over to you guys. Do you have a favorite band from your past that doesn't quite hold up now? What are you nostalgic over? And how much do you hate me for dissing both Moshiach Oi! and Space Jam? Let me know in the comments below, and have a great Shabbos!


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Choice Tunes in Orthodox Pop (Shwekey, Shapiro, Tumbak)

Orthodox pop (your Avraham Frieds and Yeshiva Boys Choirs) often gets a bad rap. Yet just as even the Top 40 scene can produce true talent among all the shallow pop idols, Orthodox pop can often turn out legitimately fun, creative, even affecting music. "Choice Tunes in Orthodox Pop" is where we'll be looking at those standout songs and artists.

Yaakov Shwekey, "We Are A Miracle"

The best Shwekey songs have always been those where the subject matter is dramatic enough to match his famously emotional performing style, and "We Are A Miracle", the title track from the singer's newest album, fits that bill perfectly. Supported by a film-score worthy Yitzy Waldner composition that builds from war drums and chanted "woah-oh"s to a soaring, inspirational chorus, Shwekey recounts with smoldering defiance the centuries of persecution that the Jewish people have miraculously survived, throwing out such righteous-sounding lines as "The Spanish Inquisition, they wanted us to bow / But our backs ain't gonna bend, never then and never now". He gets additional support from the video, directed by Jewbellish's Mendy Pellin, which uses imagery from World War II and the Holocaust to build on the sonic intesity. If this doesn't stoke your Jewish pride, nothing will.

Mordechai Shapiro, "Schar Mitzvah"

Mordechai Shapiro is the latest former Miami Boys Choir soloist to pursue a solo career (others include Shloime Dachs, Ari Goldwag, and the aforementioned Mr. Shwekey), and has been building up buzz ever since his 2016 debut album, Kol Haderech, of which "Schar Mitzvah" is the second single. The song, composed by Elie Schwalb, makes for a fun R&B jam complemented by Shapiro's capable vocals and a heartwarming message about one good deed leading to another.

Gabriel Tumbak, "Mode Ani"

French singer Gabriel Tumbak has been bouncing around the Jewish music scene since 2014, releasing a number of covers and, earlier this year, collaborating with Israeli pop maestro Gad Elbaz on the song "Rise Again". Here, Tumbak and lyricist Miriam Israeli (Shwekey, Goldwag) provide a soulful piano ballad take on the morning prayer. If you want to hear Tumbak on a more upbeat number, check out "Rise Again" or the funkalicious "Keshem Sheani".

Friday, August 19, 2016

Music Video: Kobi Oved, "Vaetchanan"

A little Israeli flavor to close out the week, and from the parsha no less.

This is the first single from singer-songwriter Kobi Oved, who according to the video's description (and my limited grasp of Hebrew) is currently working on his debut album with producer and film composer Lior Cohen (not the former Def Jam CEO, apparently). The song has a nice cinematic feel that really lends itself to the text of Moshe's last plea to G-d. Hat tip to Mostly Music, who ran this in their "Jewish Insights" section.

Good Shabbos!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Up and Coming: PERL

Artist: PERL

Style: Alternative / Indie

From: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY

Formed: July 2016

It should be said: Bulletproof Stockings could have been the start of a revolution.

Not because they proved you can totally make quality rock music while  still adhering to the restrictions of kol isha (hi, band that's been around since the '80s), or even by playing to all-female crowds at Webster Hall and Arlene's Grocery like it was no big deal. No, the revolution of BPS was that they had all the ingredients to cross over simply on the strength of their music. Instead of talented-but-gimmicky artists like Matisyahu and the Maccabeats making the talk show rounds, BPS could have been the first actively Jewish band - an all-female one, no less - to be playing Lollapalooza and showing up on alternative stations like any other rock band, just because their music was that good. With a well-received first EP and a Kickstarted album with two very promising singles, we could have been on our way to the start of a credible Jewish rock scene.

Unfortunately, the band broke up back in April before their album could get a full release, but apparently frontwoman Perl Wolfe didn't like the idea of getting a day job because she waited all of three months before starting a new band. PERL, composed of 3/4 of Bulletproof Stockings (minus drummer Dalia Shusterman, but what are you gonna do?), made its debut last month with a rooftop concert at the Manhattan JCC and is already getting press from The Jewish Week and The Huffington Post. Reportedly, PERL has a much more stripped-down and nuanced sound than their predecessor, with more plain-spoken lyrics and varied instrumentation like violin and saxophone; Wolfe told the Jewish Week, "In some ways, it’s more pulled back than the Bulletproof Stockings music, but it’s also more easily relatable. I feel like I’m finding my voice." 

At this writing, however, the only video on the band's YouTube channel is a live demo of a song called "Subside" (see below), which does indeed seem to be darker and more somber than the often loud and dramatic Stockings.

The Jewish Week article also mentions plans for an album before the year is out, so it will be interesting to see if PERL can recreate or even surpass the momentum that BPS had before their demise.

PERL can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/PERLmusic/.

So this will be the section where I talk about new Jewish artists that, for whatever reason, don't have an album yet. Again, please let me know in the comments if there are any new artists you'd like me to cover. Remember, anything from Shwekey to Zorn is fair game!

Album Review - The Solomon Brothers, Song of Life

Album: Song of Life

Artist: The Solomon Brothers

Style: Folk / Rock / Bluegrass

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Summary: While not especially original and suffering from some cliched songwriting, the album compensates with plenty of charm, sincerity, and moments of unexpected depth, making for a promising debut for this new chapter of the esteemed family.

You may not have heard of Israel's Solomon family, based in Mevo Modi'im, but modern Jewish music owes them quite a large debt. Back in the '70s, patriarch Ben Zion Solomon came to the holy land as one of the late Shlomo Carlebach's many ex-hippie followers and was a founding member of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, arguably the first fully-fledged Jewish rock band. A few decades later, his elder sons Yehuda and Noah Solomon further evolved the genre while fronting, respectively, the Moshav Band and Soulfarm, both of which found great success among U.S. college students with a blend of Grateful Dead-style jam band influences and '90s grungy alt-rock aesthetic. In short, it was inevitable that a third generation of Solomons would eventually take yet another shot at things; thus, we now have younger sibs Nachman, Yosef, and Sruli Solomon - known as The Solomon Brothers - and their debut album, Song of Life, which was released in June.

None of these three, it should be noted, are musical freshman. Nachman and Yosef, in particular, previously fronted the now-defunct Hamakor, a band that, despite its well-publicized lineage, intriguing electronica influence, and a top-tier lineup that at one point included Bruce "RebbeSoul" Burger on guitar, never quite managed to have the genre-defining impact of its brother bands. A possible reason for this is, sadly, the music; while far from terrible, the band's two albums are a bit too stylistically unfocused, a bit too lyrically obvious, and  just not particularly interesting or memorable, especially compared to the far more adventurous and insightful work of its older siblings.

The Solomon Brothers, as a three-member family band playing bluegrass-tinged folk rock, are a much less ambitious affair and, perhaps not coincidentally, much better on record. Without the pressure to be generation-defining rock gods, the younger Solomons seem much more at ease and focused, so that the touches of bombast that do show up - such as the primal drum solo that kicks off album opener "Life", or the dramatic Celtic strings on "Matzav Lo Shigrati" and "Ayalat Chen" - come off as playful inspiration rather than tired posturing. Add in some well-placed vocal harmonies and the healthy, and the album definitely has charm to it.

That charm is also the key to overcoming the album's flaws, which are not inconsiderable. While the brothers are capable songwriters, they are not above throwing in hackneyed aphorisms like "Life is a journey" (Twice! On different songs!) or the nigh-unforgivable sin of rhyming "fire" with "higher" (although even Moshav Band are guilty on that score). They are also the latest in a long, long line of indie bands (even some Jewish bands) with the unfortunate habit of trying to be Mumford and Sons every now and then.

But that's where the Solomon Brothers' charm and sincerity works to their advantage. For example, while the album's lead single, "Take Me Higher," does indeed contain the aforementioned groan-worthy rhyme in its chorus ("Take me higher / Bring me fire"), the trio belts it out with such unabashed gusto and passion, completely devoid of irony or cynicism, that it is impossible to mistake it for a throwaway line. It further helps that the theme of seeking inspiration actually relates to the verses in a surprisingly deep way ("Some look for love, some pray to G-d / Others don't look at all"). This is a recurring pattern throughout the album - touches that would normally be insufferable, rescued simply by being honest. And as far as sounding like Mumford and Sons - well, if Diaspora reflected '70s acid rock and Moshav and Soulfarm reflected '90s alternative, the closest we have to a distinctly 2010s mainstream rock sound is "trying to be Mumford and Sons," so there you go. Really, what did you expect?

(Side note: For an Israeli band, this album is relatively safe for English speakers. There is an even balance of Hebrew and English songs, and even the Hebrew songs are mostly originals sung in a jaunty, borderline talk-singing reminiscent of Aharon Razel and convey plenty of personality even if you - like this reviewer - are not fluent in the language.)

Overall, while the Solomon Brothers probably won't have the dramatic impact on music that has become typical in their family, their debut is a fun, briskly-paced folk record that is intensely likable and endearingly unironic with just enough variety and lyrical depth to keep things interesting. There is certainly more potential for growth here, though, and it will be interesting to see if they capitalize on it in future albums.

Song of Life is available on iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby. You can find out more about the Solomon Brothers at solomonbrothersband.com.

Let me know in the comments if there's any other interesting Jewish music you'd like me to talk about. I'm open to pretty much anything, so long as it's recognizably Jewish and is more or less family friendly. Also, no children's music, because what can you really say about that? But otherwise, anything from Yaakov Shwekey to John Zorn is fair game. Have at it!