For a stiff-necked people, Jews certainly do have silver throats.
There has never been a shortage of good music coming out of the world Jewish community, whether liturgical, radical or, in the case of one new CD by a homegrown artist, cosmicological.
Four new Jewish music CDs recently made their way to the j. offices, and we couldn’t resist sharing the ear candy.
Three of the four artists have Bay Area roots, among them Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. Before moving here from Boston five years ago, Creditor had already fostered a reputation as a polished musician. Now he burnishes it brightly with his newly recorded CD.
“Within” was created as a fundraiser for Netivot Shalom. Several the of the CD’s seven songs draw on passages from standard liturgy, all but two featuring melodies composed by the rabbi.
Opening with a wordless Scottish niggun, Creditor sets the tone: warm, assertive vocals, tricky yet pristine harmonies, all backed by an incredible string band.
“Yedid Nefesh” boasts an artful melody, with violinist Shira Kammen serving as Creditor’s musical chavruta partner. “Lecha Dodi” offers a hint of the rabbi’s affinity for rock, though with its acoustic arrangement the piece does not need more cowbell.
For “I and You,” Creditor and co-composer Rabbi David Paskin set to music a poem by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a kind of Torah-based “We Are the World,” while Creditor’s version of Ansel Matthews’ “Hallelujah” turns out to be one of the CD’s loveliest tracks.
The only minor stumble is “Eishet Chayil” (A Woman of Valor). Its forced rock ‘n’ roll earnestness seems a bit out of step with the rest of the CD.
But Creditor hits a home run with “V’asu,” written by the late Debbie Friedman for the 2005 dedication of Netivot Shalom’s remodeled sanctuary. Reminiscent of the Scottish ballad “Loch Lomond,” it showcases Friedman’s genius for simple yet powerful melodies.
This may have been an in-house project, but “Within” is a spiritual breath of fresh air anyone would enjoy.
San Francisco singer-songwriter Saul Kaye is not an ordained rabbi, but he can lead the morning prayers with the best of them. That explains his new CD, “Jewish Blues Volume III,” subtitled “t’filah” (prayer), in which he sets the Shacharit service to music.
He even includes a minute of silence for personal prayers.
Kaye’s blues chops are beyond reproach, and though he only occasionally ventures into straight-up blues, that vibe hovers in the background. With a voice pocked with pain and experience (not unlike Glen Hansard of “Once” fame), Kaye growls his way through bright arrangements of “Adon Olam” and “Ma Tovu.”
“Blessed Be the Name” echoes the fingerpicking country blues style of Elizabeth Cotton, while Kaye’s waltz-time version of “Ashrei” incorporates tasty pedal steel and slack key guitar touches.
Kaye’s broad musical tastes include a feel for Middle Eastern–flavored salsa, as in his “Halleluyah,” even as he shows off his slide guitar skills on “Kol Han’Shamah” and the “Vahavta.” The latter has a rum-infused Jimmy Buffet feel, a questionable mash-up for a prayer of this significance, but Kaye has fun with it nevertheless.
The album’s most adventurous track, “Sh’ma,” clocks in at six-plus minutes. He hurls all his rock, blues and soul influences at this central Jewish prayer, with his whispered vocals sticking to the traditional tune, something he also does on his harder rocking “Aleinu.”
Kaye continues the parade of genres with his country-blues version of “Mi Chamocha” and surf pop underscoring of “Al Tira” (the latter includes passages from FDR, Nachman of Braslav and Kaye’s own homily on fearlessness). He wraps it up with “Oseh Shalom,” rendered like a bluesy incarnation of a New Orleans marching band.
Rarely does Jewish music produce an artist with both impeccable blues chops and the kavanah of a Hassid. Kaye fits that odd bill, and we’re better off for it.
Another artist with Bay Area ties, Adam Stern, has a feel for holiness, too, though he plies it in a more universalistic form on his new CD, “Cosmicology.”
Based in Los Angeles (but born in the Bay Area), Stern steeps his new album in a strong Jamaican-flavored brew, peppered with a message of world peace and harmony.
Tracks like “Brighter in the Darkness” and “Coexistence” typify his brand of pop: intricate rapid-fire lyrics, funky Isley Brothers–styled guitars and Stern’s high, Sting-like vocals. “Good Morning Sunshine” features Stern’s layered harmonies in a doo-wop streetcorner fashion, while “OM,” with its ecumenical call to action (“Om, shalom, namaste …”) draws on his love of all things Bob Marley.
Stern has an instinct for groove riffs, as in “Wake Up Slow,” and if he desired, he could easily crank out hook-heavy singles, as the harmony-drenched “Young Star” proves.
But he has more pressing spiritual business to attend to, as in “Planetary Spirits,” which draws on the Sh’ma to further his message of oneness (“Cosmicology equals your cardiology”).
Stern is not alone in his musical romance with Jamaican dub. Veteran Israeli band Balkan Beat Box’s new CD, “Give,” is heavily premised on that style, along with pretty much every other style known to man. It’s kitschy kitchen sink chaos at its best.
Together for a decade, the Tel Aviv–based band sings in English to promote a universal message of peace. It feels Jewish enough, though BBB eschews ethnic and religious particularlism.
Vocalist Tomer Yosef establishes the CD’s anti-materialist theme in the songs “Intro” and “Part of the Glory” (“People want to turn dust into gold”), and only grows more radical from there. With their quirky retro-Casio keyboard flourishes and buzz crunch drum parts, songs like “Political F***” and “Money” express the band’s distaste for filthy lucre.
Fans of the Bay Area band Fishbone will hear much to like in BBB, especially on horn-heavy tracks such as “Looks Like You” and “Porno Clown.” The band does tone down the nuttiness on “Minimal” and the wistful “What A Night.”
But the normality doesn’t last. “Urge to be Violent” draws on a Middle Eastern–flavored spaghetti Western guitar line to hammer home its “peace now” theme, while the instrumental “Suki Muki” nearly blows the speakers apart.
All of which means BBB should tear it up when the group headlines Israel in the Gardens in San Francisco on June 10. But no one need wait for the adrenaline rush. “Give” is a bombastic musical gift that keeps on giving.
Balkan Beat Box, “Give” (Nat Geo Music, www.natgeomusic.net)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, “Within” (EKS Publishing, www.ekspublishing.com)
Saul Kaye, “Jewish Blues Vol. III” (www.saulkaye.com)
Adam Stern, “Cosmicology” (www.adamstern.us)
All albums/songs also available from iTunes