Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New Israeli Music: Haim Israel, Shuli Rand, Yeshai Ben Tzvi

Welcome back to "might become a weekly thing, hard to say, I'm a fickle sort". Be sure to check out last week's post.
First up, appropriately enough, is singer Haim Israel with the new up-tempo single "Na'ar HaMidbar" (Child of the Desert). The song's lyrics are by Itamar Cohen, while Udi Damari composed, produced, and mixed it.

Next, Jerusalem-based actor and singer Shuli Rand has returned with the rock single "Lo Tedi Kama" (You Don't Know How Much), his first self-composed song since his 2008 debut album Nekuda Tov (Good Point). Produced by Assaf Talmudi, the song is from Rand's upcoming album Ratzua V'Shuv (Back and Forth), which will be preceded by a live concert of the same name on Thursday, March 9 at Pubella in the North of Israel, featuring songs from the new album as well as ones from his debut.

Finally we have Yeshai Ben Zvi with the ballad "Esa Einai", produced and mixed by Adi Chait. Doubling as the leader of the Rimonim wedding band, this is his second solo single (his first, "Hashem Echad", released last year). His debut album is set to be released this summer.

Five Great Jewish Albums From 2016

Note: Yes, I know it's February already. Writing is hard.

The semi-authoritative "Best XYZ of the Year" list is a staple of music criticism (and poor imitations thereof), but seeing as I haven't been doing this blog for even a year and only had a casual knowledge of Jewish music to start with, I have less than zero authority to make such a list (you could argue whether anyone does, but that's another discussion). So, instead, here is a non-ranked list of a few Jewish albums from the past year that I personally thought were very good and would recommend to others (plus some honorable mentions), because not everything in 2016 sucked.

Further Note: This list is my incomplete ramblings. I didn't seek out a lot of Jewish music last year, so if an album you loved isn't on here, I either didn't get to hear it or forgot about it. Feel free to comment or email me to tell me what I missed.

Zusha, Kavana

On paper, a band that replaces all its lyrics with "da da da" in tribute to some ancient musical tradition sounds like the height of lazily pretentious hipsterism. Fortunately, Zusha has the musical chops to back up that conceit. Frontman Shlomo Gaisin croons and belts nigunim with the kind of rich, dynamic voice that can make the phone book sound dramatic. Behind him, his bandmates supply not only gorgeous three-part harmonies but also a wide variety of musical styles, from the group's signature folk/jazz/reggae blend to ambitious new sounds like the brassy "East Shtetl", the Coldplay-esque "Forever", or the near-dubstep stomp of "Ikvisa". Not for everyone, but more adventurous indie fans will find a lot to like here.

Check out: "East Shtetl", "Mashiach", "Shuva"

The Portnoy Brothers, Learn To Love

The cover, title, and the fact that they're from Israel might have you dreading yet more ex-hippie Carlebach devotees doing overly earnest rehashes of the master's work. Fortunately, The Portnoy Brothers aren't about that. While British-bred sibs Sruli and Mendy Portnoy do have a folk side to them, the retro focus on their debut album is more late '70s soul-pop in the vein of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, and they're quite good at it. Sruli's vocals deserve credit, as he capably rides both the harsher funk tracks and the slower R&B jams, but the brothers collectively manage to channel their influences in a way that feels authentic and yet still fresh. Their lyrics, while not overtly religious, have a nice positive outlook that doesn't feel too contrived, with just enough of a darker edge (particularly on songs like "Tomorrow's Yesterday" and "Bittersweet Home") to still sound human. The title track in particular has a message of reaching out to those hardest to love that feels particularly relevant in the current sociopolitical climate. Here's hoping this debut is a sign of even better things to come from these two.

Check out: "Diggin' Deep", "Learn To Love", "Tomorrow's Yesterday"

Avishai Rosen, Mi She'ani Achshav (Who I Am Now)

In an industry where so many child stars burn out once they hit puberty (yes, even in Jewish music), 18-year-old Avishai Rosen has not only stayed active (this is his second album), but maintained a surprising amount of artistic integrity, writing his own songs and playing many of his own instruments. Here, the former Kinderlach member's growing maturity manifests itself both in his deepening voice and in the way his catchy pop rock songs are starting to edge into piano-centric indie rock similar to Ben Folds or The Fray. His lyrics, while still clearly written by a teenager, tackle the emotional insanity of adolescence with a surprising amount of clarity for his age, all the while assuring younger listeners of the light at the end of the tunnel. If this album is any indication of his talent, Avishai Rosen is well on his way to becoming a musician to be reckoned with.

Check out: "Echzor", "Hayiti Boreach", "Tipot Shel Ruach"

Hanan Ben Ari, Izun (Balance)

Not for nothing was Hanan Ben Ari's debut album certified gold in Israel after selling 15,000 copies in three months. Over the course of 11 tracks, this new face in the Israeli music scene displays his passionate vocals and songwriting with a soulful sound mixing funk, hip-hop, R&B, and Mizrahi music. His lyrics address conflicts in Israeli society, the Jewish community, even within Ben Ari himself, with a healthy mix of humor and sincerity. With a debut this strong, album no. 2 should definitely be something to look forward to.

Check out: "Izun", "Mimcha Ad Elai", "Tutim"

The Shondes, Brighton

Calling a feminist punk band known for its political activism "pop rock" might sound like fighting words, but Brooklyn's The Shondes should take no shame in having written some fantastic songs in that genre. While Brighton isn't quite as meaty as its predecessor (2013's The Garden), it's hard not to get sucked into the absurdly catchy hooks, the soaring guitar licks, and of course the almost aggressive optimism exuded by lead vocalist Louisa Rachel Solomon. That last one is key; while the album is not without angry or somber moments, its strength lies in Solomon's sheer wide-eyed joy and passion as she looks toward the future and refuses to give up on the possibilities ahead of her, no matter how remote they may seem. One needn't agree with the band's politics to acknowledge that Brighton is a rock solid album.

Check out: "Everything Good", "True North", "My Ghost"

Honorable Mentions:
  • Matisyahu, Release The Bound EP
  • Beri Weber, One Heart
  • Benny Friedman, Fill The World With Light
  • Rogers Park, The Maggid
  • DEMA, Dade-Halifax EP
  • Joe Buchanan, Unbroken
  • Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Video: i4i, "Lev Tahor"

Rapper i4i (Ari Shorr), together with the Jewish social network Shabbat.com, has released the music video "Lev Tahor". The song, performed by Shorr, samples a song of the same name by Abie Rotenberg's Dveykus band, as well as audio from the movie Kingdom of Heaven.

A fairly new face on the Jewish hip hop scene, Shorr has already collaborated with heavyweights like Ari Lesser and SHI 360.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

NPR Tiny Desk: Distant Cousins, "In My Blood"

Indie pop trio Distant Cousins have submitted their song "In My Blood" to the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Contest, joining fellow Jewish indie artists DEMA and Yerachmiel. The video above was filmed by Yehuda Kamman at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

Formed in 2012, Distant Cousins is comprised of Blue Fringe's Dov Rosenblatt, Moshav's Duvid Swirsky, and their mutual friend and collaborator Ami Kozak. They have released two self-titled EPs, one in 2014 and one in 2015, and their music has been featured in commmercials, TV shows, and feature films.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Album Review: Alex Clare, "Tail of Lions"

Album: Tail of Lions

Released: January 20, 2017

Style: Alternative/Electronic/Soul

British singer-songwriter Alex Clare is no stranger to career ups and downs. His first album, The Lateness of the Hour, was a critical and commercial disappointment in the UK. That, combined with Clare - an Orthodox baal t'shuvah - turning down a tour with Adele that fell on Shabbos and High Holidays, caused his label, Island Records, to drop him. Then the album's single "Too Close" ended up in ads for Internet Explorer 9 and subsequently went double-platinum, convincing the label to quickly re-sign him and give the album a much more successful U.S. release. Then his follow-up, 2014's Three Hearts, was again disappointingly received (due to lack of label support, according to Clare), charting much lower and earning more mixed reviews.

Understandably, Clare, now a husband and father, felt the need for a change of pace. He left the label for good and moved to Jerusalem in 2015, where he immersed himself in Hasidic teachings. Then he returned to London the following summer, connected with friend Chris Hargreaves of the UK band Submotion Orchestra, and the two set sail on the River Lea in a narrowboat, where they spent several weeks writing and recording songs. The result is Clare's third effort, Tail of Lions - a Pirkei Avos reference that advocates being a follower of greats rather than a leader of scoundrels. Clare, however, might be ready to do some pretty great leading if this album is any indication.

A common criticism of Clare's earlier albums was that they overemphasized one element (throbbing dubstep on Hour, glossy folk-pop on Hearts) at the expense of Clare's own musical identity. By contrast, Tail comfortably incorporates those styles and several others - the spacey trip-hop of "Get Real", the rousing funk-rock of "Gotta Get Up" and "Surviving Ain't Living", the angry arena rock of "Basic" and Open My Eyes" - all while still giving him plenty of sonic room to breathe - and boy, does he. Unfettered by label demands or public expectations, Clare's performance here is dripping with rawness - not only in his near-ragged voice (undoubtedly an acquired taste for some), but in the emotion he draws out of nearly every track, bringing fury and angst to the rockers and quiet sadness to the ballads with equally chilling impact. If Clare ever was just another British soul singer yelling over techno beats a la John Newman, he thoroughly shatters that image here.

On the lyrical side of things, Clare has obviously outgrown the sordid breakup songs he used to be known for (and which, he has implied, were mostly the label's idea anyway), so it's no surprise that this album goes for somewhat deeper subject matter. His faith is a clear and present influence; beyond the album title, "Love Can Heal" quotes Solomon with "There ain't nothing new under the sun," while "You'll Be Fine", glib title aside, restores crucial context to oft-abused quotes from Rebbe Nachman and the Maharash. Yet rather than settle for blissed-out positivity like many a BT recording artist, Clare is all too willing to show his humanity. "Tell Me What You Need" and "Tired From The Fire" show the ups and downs of a relationship. "Surviving Ain't Living" and "Gotta Get Up" strike down apathy and conformity. "Basic" defends a troubled man to those who have written him off. And perhaps most boldly, "Open My Eyes" expresses Clare's frustration over the political chaos in America and the UK in the past year with a level of insight that should appeal to voters of any persuasion. The album's thematic mission statement seems to be Edmund Burke's "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

This all might sound like heavy stuff, but part of Clare's genius is keeping everything pretty accessible; only two songs are longer than four minutes, and nearly all of them have a strong hook to get embedded in your brain and easily relatable emotions, ensuring that all of the album's deep themes go down easy. With his ability to incorporate so many styles and themes while still maintaining a consistent focus, Alex Clare is a revelation for both Jewish music and music in general. If any musician deserves to be a trendsetter, he most certainly does.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Video: Netanel Israel and Sruli Broncher, "Malka"

Israeli DJ Sruli Broncher and his frequent collaborator, vocalist Netanel Israel, have released a klezmer-techno, Shabbos-themed video entitled "Malka".

Alex Clare, "Open My Eyes" (Stripped Back) ft. The Portnoy Brothers

British singer Alex Clare has released a Stripped Back version of the song "Open My Eyes" from his newest album, Tail of Lions. Filmed on a Tel Aviv rooftop with director Avi Noo and audio producer Ben Wallick, Clare's backing band includes not only Chris Hargreaves, who worked on the album, but also Sruli and Mendy Portnoy of The Portnoy Brothers. Tail of Lions is now available in both the US and the UK; a Yidwise review will go up in the next few days.

Shwekey releases "Those Were The Days" album

Frum-pop headliner Yaakov Shwekey has released his latest project, a double album called Those Were The Days: My Favorite Collection. You can hear a sampling of it above.

Produced by Shwekey and Yitzy Waldner with arrangers Avrumi Berko, Ravid Kashti, and Rafi Greidi, the album has Shwekey covering older Jewish music, both specific artists (Carlebach, MBD, Journeys, Dveykus) and general styles (Yiddish, Middle Eastern).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sruli Broncher and Chaim Shlomo Mayes release "Mimaamakim"

Vocalist Chaim Shlomo Mayes and producer Sruli Broncher, the Israeli duo behind last year's Yiddish reggaeton hit "Oy A Broch!", have released a somewhat more laid-back single with "Mimaamakim" (From The Depths). The song is composed by Yosef Tzvi Breyer (the lyrics are from Tehilim) and was released through David Fadida's FDD Productions, which previously worked with Itzik Dadya and Uziya Tzadok.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Album Review: ohr, "Side by Side EP"

Artist: ohr

Style: Alternative/Indie/Folk
Release Date: January 6, 2017

As I wrote last week, Ohr is the brainchild of Jake Polansky, whose former band Yaakov Chesed was one of several in the mid-to-late-2000s looking to be the next Blue Fringe. I also wrote that he's the first frontman from that scene to try a solo comeback (though Jason P. from 3 Steps Closer has a solo album on the way, so look out for that). So, given the lack of precedent and the considerable time since his band's popularity, can Jake Polansky establish himself as a credible solo artist?

The EP gets off to a shaky start; opener "Wings" begins with what sounds like an unfinished demo composed with an off-tempo Casio keyboard preset, and the hokey lyrics about wanting to fly "to a place there's no hate / Only love reverberates" don't help matters. It picks up towards the end, however, with an echoey quiet passage that repeats "I'll soar above the burning flames" that builds into a much tighter variation on the chorus. The upward trend continues with the rousing Mumford & Sons-esque folk of "Brother" and "Red Light"; the brooding post-grunge of "Curb Appeal"; and closer "Another Way", which sounds like a bluegrass version of an Of Monsters and Men song.

Something that slowly becomes apparent over the course of the EP is the evolution Jake Polansky's undergone since we last heard from him. In Yaakov Chesed, his voice and persona were a little too clean and polished, his lyrics too formulaic and toothless, to match the heavier rock riffs his band was playing behind him. Here, however, his voice has considerably more harshness and emotional range, and his lyrics, while dealing with similar topics, have more variety, creativity, and depth put into them. "Red Light" and "Curb Appeal" deal with breaking out of complacency, while "Brother" and "Another Way" encourage listeners to overcome their differences and come together to change the world.

In the end, while Side by Side won't reinvent any wheels, it shows that Jake Polansky has what to offer beyond his earlier work and could prove the beginning of a very promising career. If you're a fan of creative, emotional alt-rock, Ohr is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Chilu Genuth releases "Tatir Tzeriro"

Israeli Hasidic singer Chilu Genuth has released the single "Tatir Tzeriro" (Untie the Bundled Sins, a quote from Kabbalas Shabbos). The song was composed by Bentzy German and arranged by Yanky Cohen, and features guitar work by Avi Singolda.

Genuth first appeared in late 2015 on the song "Hashiveinu Hashem", a collaboration with producer Gershy Schwarcz. He reappeared last summer on a techno version of "Boi Beshalom" commissioned for a friend's wedding. This is his first official single.

Monday, January 23, 2017

New Israeli music from The Solomon Brothers, Roy Edri, and more

A number of Israeli artists have new music out today, so I figured I would cover them all in one post (that and I'm hoping to finally get some album reviews done).

First up is The Solomon Brothers with their cover of "Shemesh" (Sun), a song released last year in Israel by funk/rap band Hadag Nahash and Mizrahi artist Shai Tsabari.

Next, folk rocker Roy Edri has a new single called "Bilhishat Malachim" (Angel's Whisper), about the birth of his children, which was arranged and produced by Reuven Chiyun.

And finally, reggae/dancehall group Hatikva 6 have released a video for their single "Hakol Od L'fanai" (Everything Before Me), which sees frontman Omri Glikman struggling between his own life plans and those others have for him.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Video: Nemouel, "Elokai"

French-Israeli Chabad singer Nemouel has released a video for his single "Elokai". The track, a Yisrael Lubin production composed by Yitzy Waldner, arranged and produced by David Ichilovitz, and featuring The Groggers' Chemy Soibelman on drums, is a soaring alt-rock anthem (based on Elokai Neshama from davening), perfectly matched to an Indiana Jones-esque treasure-hunt video filmed in Tzidkiyahu's Cave by director Ariel Cohen and producer Shalom Eisenbach.

Based in Tel Aviv, Nemouel Harroch first gained attention with his 2014 single "Ashreinu" with producer Dani Avidani. The two of them later parlayed the single into Nemouel's debut album, Hitgalut (Epiphany), which released last January. "Elokai" is the first single from his upcoming second album.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Levi Robin to play The Hotel Café in LA

Folksinger Levi Robin will give a special acoustic performance next Thursday evening, January 26th, at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. He will reportedly play new songs from his upcoming album. Tickets can be purchased here.

DEMA performs "Lovely Signal" for NPR Tiny Desk Contest

Floridian indie-folk artist DEMA is submitting his song "Lovely Signals" to NPR's annual Tiny Desk Contest.

Based in Dayotna Beach, Florida, DEMA has been performing since 2013. "Lovely Signals" comes from his debut EP, Dade Halifax, which released last June, is available on iTunes, and is highly recommended for fans of the headier side of indie rock. You can check out the album version of the song below:

Eitan Katz to release "Pure Simcha"

Singer/guitarist Eitan Katz will shortly release his seventh album entitled Pure Simcha. You can hear a preview of the album above.

The result of "years in the making, both in vision and in actual production", according to a message from Katz that accompanies the video, the album's 35 tracks and two bonus tracks are meant to evoke the simchas and weddings he often plays at and will reportedly draw from Sefardi music, horas, Hasidic nigunim, Carlebach, and a few of Katz's own compositions. Production was handled by Grammy winner Dave Darlington.

The son of Cantor Avshalom Katz and brother of fellow Carlebach-inspired singer Shlomo Katz, Eitan Katz began his career in 2005 with two albums featuring his brother and produced by his father, as well as an album of his own, L'maancha. He has since released five more albums, including two acoustic and one live.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Jake Polansky (ex-Yaakov Chesed) goes solo with "ohr"

Jake Polansky, former lead singer of the alt-rock band Yaakov Chesed, is now back with an indie folk solo project called ohr. The project's debut EP, Side by Side, was released last Tuesday and is available on all the usual platforms. You can hear a sampling of it above.

Yaakov Chesed, for those who don't recall, was one of several post-Blue Fringe alternative bands that sprung up in and around Yeshiva University in the late '00s and early '10s (oddly specific trend, that). Besides Polansky, the group also featured future solo star Aryeh Kunstler on bass and released two albums, 2007's Rise Above and 2009's The Passage. While other frontmen from that era have had success with new bands (Blue Fringe's Dov Rosenblat with Distant Cousins, JudaBlue's Shlomo Gaisin with Zusha), Polansky is the first to try a solo project.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Guest Post: Orthodox Punk Rockers

Hey guys! Michael Croland, formerly of heebnvegan and currently a published author, was gracious enough to write a guest post for Yidwise this week. You can check out more of his writing, including his new book, at oyoyoygevalt.com.

Punk is about going against the grain, giving the establishment the middle finger, and making heavy music that the masses would find unpalatable. Orthodox Judaism is not.

In my book, Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, I explored about two dozen punk rock bands that were overtly Jewish. The majority didn’t put religiousness front and center and focused instead on cultural Jewishness, Jewish humor, and various types of traditional Jewish music. There were five bands that managed to balance their punk rock spirit with Orthodox Judaism. They were unconventional and even wild in some cases, but ultimately they were serious about Judaism.

Moshiach Oi!
Yishai Romanoff started the “Torah hardcore” band Moshiach Oi! in 2008. As he embraced Orthodoxy in his early 20s, he no longer connected with most messages in the punk rock he held dear, so he wrote his own Jewish punk songs. Romanoff said, “For me, those basic values of being against the establishment and standing up for what’s right, to me, I saw those same values in the Judaism that I was discovering. So I kind of took punk rock and made it my own. . . . To me, Judaism is punk.” The band has faced unusual challenges through the years. Could screaming “Oi!’ help bring Moshiach (the messiah)? Did a woman’s guest vocals on one song violate kol isha (which prohibits a man from listening to a woman sing because of potential arousal) if her screaming sounded “like a demon from hell”? Would screaming “Shema Yisroel” make listeners “really feel it”?

White Shabbos
Guitarist Menashe Yaakov Wagner co-founded White Shabbos as a Jewish response to the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly—a folk-punk band with a Jewish message at the center. Wagner has been ordained as a rabbi but does not openly use the title. He runs Shabasa Records, which focuses on what he called message-oriented, Torah-centric, alternative, rebel music, and he plays in every band on the label, including Moshiach Oi! White Shabbos’s 2004 album included psalms as well as songs about Shabbat, Moshiach, and Rav Avraham Kook. The band’s lineup has changed over time and they don’t sound so punk anymore, but this live version of “Shabbos Holy Shabbos” harkens back to their original style. Play it loud!

The Groggers
The Groggers were an Orthodox pop-punk band with a comic twist. Singer L.E. Doug Staiman was surprised by the band’s success at first: “It was this thing that never should have caught on, because if you got the humor, you’d be offended by it.” Songs on the Groggers’ 2011 debut often required a high degree of Jewish knowledge in order to be fully appreciated. “One Last Shatnez” told the story of a rebel who insisted on wearing shatnez (a prohibited combination of wool and linen). “Friday Night Lights” expressed the narrator’s eagerness to have sex with his wife on “mitzvah night.” “Farbrengiton” dealt with a farbrengin (celebration involving alcohol) on “the rebbe’s yahrzeit.” These were pop-punk songs about breaking the rules, sex, and heavy drinking, through a Jewish lens. In “Get” (the Groggers’ breakout song/video), Staiman encouraged a man to grant his wife a get (a religious writ of divorce). The song was not intended for a large, general audience with lyrics like “You’ve been on a losing streak since the sheva brachos week,” but the song was catchy and the hilarious video attracted fans.

Until breaking up in 2009, Yidcore was the standard-bearer for overtly Jewish, zany punk rock. Their shtick included drinking Manischewitz wine out of a shofar, throwing around Jewish foods, and using their songs to woo Natalie Portman and lampoon Adam Sandler. Yidcore did not come across as Orthodox in any obvious way, but singer Bram Presser was the executive president of an Orthodox synagogue. “Not all the shul members approve of me, but they do say they like me when I am quiet,” he explained. In “Punk Rock Chanukah Song,” their parody of Sandler’s version, Yidcore acknowledged their Jewish punk forefathers: “Joey Ramone ate matzoh at the seder/Just like Richard Hell and most of the Dictators.”

Around 2001, a group of Orthodox teenagers came together in Miami and called themselves 7Seventy—named after the address of the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Guitarist Josh Braham recalled that he and his bandmates were “trying to reconcile” the musical styles they appreciated with the religious messages they found meaningful. The band’s performances included a bar mitzvah, Rosh Chodesh celebrations, and backyard shows. Braham had not heard of any other Jewish punk bands when 7Seventy formed, but he learned about Yidcore shortly afterward. He said the religious content of 7Seventy songs was “absolutely genuine,” as opposed to Yidcore’s “mockery.” Braham did not want 7Seventy to be too edgy anyway, out of fear that he would get expelled from his yeshiva. He later ran the blog A Frum Punk.

Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published in April by Praeger (an imprint of ABC-CLIO). Check out the book to learn more about all the artists featured in this guest post!