December 7, 2006
Originality trumps repetition in the holiday songs battle
I will be frank. I'm tired of hearing the same holiday songs over and over. So the best Chanukah present I've received this year is a pile of Chanukah-themed CDs with lots of new holiday songs, many of them quite good. Here's what crossed my desk this December.
The Klezmatics: "Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah" (JMG) and "Wonder Wheel" (JMG). I wasn't that enthused by the "Matics" Guthrie Chanukah set when it was released last year, but I have to admit I was wrong.
This is a spirited, jaunty and frequently funny set that should be particularly appealing to children (and will give their parents a respite from "The Dreydl Song"). The set adds four instrumental tracks to last year's release, allowing the band to stretch out and show their chops, but my favorite is a carry-over, "The Many and the Few," a classic example of Guthrie's skill at rendering narratives into song lyrics redolent of ballad classics.
"Wonder Wheel" continues the Klezmatics' collaboration with the Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing indeed. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin "Mermaid Avenue" to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby "Headdy Down," from a weirdly Asiatic/alternative-country "Pass Away" to a klezmer "Goin' Away to Sea." One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are. One expects the good-natured progressivism of something like "Come When I Call You" and "Heaven," but the deeply felt religious feeling of "Holy Ground" is unexpected and moving.
The LeeVees: "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?" (JDub/iTunes). When the LeeVees' "Hanukkah Rocks" came out on JDub last year, I wrote, "Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own.... The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce ('Tell your mom to fry, not bake') and of not getting presents (well, there are 'six-packs of new socks from each of our moms')." Now, they have added an EP, mostly of playful acoustic versions of the previous Chanukah tunes and a punchy new tune "Jewish Stars," downloadable from iTunes. Like the originals, these are amiable, bouncy and witty rockers. Thirteen minutes of pure pleasure.
The Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble: "Chanukah Is Freylekh!" (self-distributed). This is a very jolly set of European-style performances -- tsimbl and fiddle predominate, no brass -- that often feels like a family gathering. And that's appropriate, because the CD comes with dance directions for kids, as well as the usual translations, bios and such. It is a delightful recording, fueled by Cahan-Simon's warm, friendly sound. Available from Hatikvah Music, (323) 655-7083 or hatikvahmusic.com.
Poppa's Kitchen: "A Rockin' Hanukkah" (self-distributed). A cheerful MOR-rock set of new Chanukah songs from Robert Romanus (who you may recall from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") and Scott Feldman. The EP (only 21 minutes) has one song for each night, a cheerful blend of California rock and holiday spirit, witty lyrics and some hook-filled tunes. Available from cdbaby.com.
Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman: "Fli, Mayn Fishlang! Fly, Fly My Kite!" (Yiddishland). It is devoutly to be hoped that casual listeners will not dismiss Schaechter-Gottesman as the "flavor of the month" because she has become so prominent of late; she has more than earned the attention, and I, for one, hope it continues for a long time. The quality of musicians she attracts is one mark of how good she is -- this set includes contributions by Lorin Sklamberg, Binumen Schaechter, Matt Darriau and Ben Holmes. This CD features her Yiddish children's songs, which have a charming wistfulness that reminds me more of a French chanson than anything else. There are also songs for several holidays (including a couple of Chanukah tunes) and, as usual from Schaechter-Gottesman, a lot of yearning lyrics about the changing of the seasons. Available from yiddishlandrecords.com.
Julie Silver: "It's Chanukah Time" (HyLo). Of course, there is another way to pep up those tired traditional holiday songs -- you can reinterpret them, change the lyrics around, make them contemporary. This is often a recipe for disaster, but Silver's "The Dreidel Song" reworked as a frisky country rocker works wonderfully (almost hilariously) well, and sets a high standard for the rest of this set. A reggae "Al Hanisim" and a Latin-flavored "Chanukah, Oh Chanukah" work almost as well. The only problem with this approach, even when it's done right, is that the focus shifts from the message of the holiday to a guessing game: What's next, a goth-metal "Mi Yimalel," "Maoz Tzur" as a morning raga? Silver doesn't do anything that absurd, so the set doesn't spiral out of control, but there is an inevitable lingering doubt in the listener's mind that some of the choices were motivated by the need for the unfamiliar rather than the musical possibilities. Still, it's a nicely played and sung set. Available from hyloproductions.com and at Barnes & Noble.
In addition to these Chanukah-themed recordings, there are two big-ticket items to keep in mind when doing your year-end gift shopping. The ongoing partnership between Naxos Records and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has resulted in 50 CDs showcasing the remarkable range of Jewish American music; although they will continue to issue new recordings on a regular basis, they are celebrating this milestone by offering a set of those first sets. The deluxe box set of all 50 Milken Archive CDs will be available for $349, a savings of $100 if purchased individually. Available at milkenarchive.org.
If you are feeling less ambitious or less solvent, or if you know an aspiring Jewish musician, you should consider Yale Strom's latest project, "The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook," published by Transcontinental Music. This volume boasts more than 300 songs that Strom has collected in his travels through the Old Country, and comes with a CD that features his performances of 36 of them. At $49.95, it is a must for anyone interested in East European Jewish music. Availble wherever music books are sold.
George Robinson, film and music critic for Jewish Week, is the author of "Essential Torah" (Shocken Books, 2006).