Thursday, August 18, 2016

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!

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