November 29, 2007
For listening, for giving—klezmer and its cousins
Romashka Live at Joe's Pub
After two consecutive years of a mailbox clogged with new Chanukah music, this year seems to have produced a drought of latkes-candles-and-dreidel epics. No matter. There are plenty of terrific CDs around that will make good gifts for those who do the December festivities thing, or you could buy them for yourself (you selfish thing).
There is a phrase we use in my house to denote any music that makes you move your lower limbs almost involuntarily. We call this "wiggle music," and the following selection features some very potent examples of the genre. If a winter dance is on your agenda, you could do a lot worse than to throw a couple of these in your CD player and hit shuffle. Or better yet: "wiggle."
Metropolitan Klezmer, "Traveling Show" (Rhythm Media)
There used to be two complaints about live rock albums. Either the band played their greatest hits exactly as they had on record (Who needs a live recording that's nothing but a reprise of the studio, only with the mistakes intact?) or they indulged their arty sides with long, dull solos. Old-line klezmer wasn't as much of an improviser's art as, say, jazz, but contemporary New Klez is much more so. And that means a live set like this new one from the Metros is welcome. The band swings hard, everyone has ample solo room and plenty to say. There's even a track from Eve Sicular's other band, Isle of Klezbos. In short, this is what a live set should be: great fun.
The Polina Shepherd Vocal Experience (featuring Quartet Ashkenazim), "Baym Taykh" (Oriente)
This dazzling new recording is a distinct change of pace from what I usually hear (I get to listen to a lot of new Yiddish music, which can be a positive or a negative depending on the recording). The songs are all originals, composed by Polina Shepherd and sung by Shepherd and a quartet that includes her and husband Merlin Shepherd (who also contributes memorably on reeds and guitar), Yana Ovrutskaya and Evgenya Slavina. This is elegant chamber music that dances nimbly from postmodern a cappella to jazz to art song without missing a beat. A beautiful, frequently moving CD. You can't dance to it, but you can listen for hours without losing interest.
Blue Fringe, "The Whole World Lit Up" (Craig 'n' Co.)
These guys have developed an ardent cult following, and it's not hard to see why. With their hook-filled soft rock featuring inflections of The Beatles, The Eagles and The Byrds, Blue Fringe has found a plausible vehicle for their religious feelings, and their music is both thoughtful and danceable. Not my favorite genre, personally, but they do it well. I prefer the rockers, especially when the lead guitarists -- to borrow a phase from boxing -- let their hands go. Nevertheless, a satisfying set from a rising band.
Gail Javitt, "Like a Braided Candle, Songs for Havdalah" (self-distributed)
A nice idea for a record, compiling songs relating to Havdalah, and the result is a pleasant if unexceptional recording. Javitt has a sweet Debby Friedman-like voice; I wish she would use the lower part of her range more because it's quite expressive, while the top is a bit thin. The material is a solid mix of the familiar ("A Gute Voch," "Birhot Havdalah") and the somewhat more unusual. I'm particularly fond of the Sephardic "Hamavdil" that opens the set.
Klezamir, "Warm Your Hands" (self-distributed)
Fourth album from this excellent Massachusetts-based quintet sees them proceeding without vocalist Rhoda Bernard. The result is a more instrumental-oriented set, but like their previous CDs this opens with a butt-shaking number, "Undzer Nigundl," powered by a strong rock beat from drummer Keith Levreault. After that it settles into a more traditional groove, but the results are very satisfying.
Romashka, "Romashka" (self-distributed)
A wildly swinging set from this excellent Gypsy-cum-klezmer-cum-Balkan-brass-band aggregation. I saw Romashka live in a superheated little bar about a year ago and I was curious whether any recording could capture their insane level of intensity. From the rocketing opening of "Mariana," the first cut on their new set, through some smoldering, smoky vocals by Inna Barmash to a pounding "Moldovan Batuta," this is as full of energy and thrills as any studio set can be. Particular kudos to Ron Caswell, whose tuba provides a bouncing dance floor for both this CD and the Slavic Soul Party set reviewed elsewhere in this column.
Chana Rothman, "We Can Rise" (Oyhoo)
Here's a promising debut from Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Chana Rothman. She offers a heady mix of liturgically based hard folk-rock and reggae-inflected and hip-hop informed rockers, all originals. She reminds me of a young Basya Schechter without the Middle Eastern influences, and her best writing ("Ana," "Gates of Justice") is quite good. Her rapping isn't quite there yet -- too many eccentric rhythmic choices that disrupt her flow -- but I'm definitely looking forward to watching her evolve.
http://www.chanarothman.com/ Slavic Soul Party, "Teknochek Collision" (Barbes Records)
This is a wildly swinging amalgam of Balkan brass band, Gypsy and klezmer elements, with as many swerves and twists as a mountain road. The fusion of disparate elements is seamless, not a surprise if you consider how much these various traditions share. As the band's name suggests, this is great party music, so grab a bottle of Slivovitz and a friend and dance.