Shake off the dust
Jewish music is often associated with the mournful wail of the violin and the shriek of the clarinet, but the ideas behind the sounds are transplantable. Such a distinction is apparent on New York native Matisyahu’s explosive multi-genre debut album.
The hyperbole of the title is a clear reference to the artist’s personal journey. A member of the post-baby boomer Deadhead crowd (an East Coast phenomenon closely linked with the youth of upper-middle class Jewish communities since the early ‘80s), Matisiyahu, born Matthew Miller, spent his teenage years as a wandering hippie. It was during this time, according to his Web site, that Miller traveled to the Rocky Mountains and "had an eye-opening realization: there is a God."
Upon returning to New York, Miller joined the Carlebach Shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he managed to marry his musical interests in reggae and hip-hop with the spiritual guidance of Hasidic Judaism.
Unlike the tongue-in-cheek classic rock rip-off aesthetic of Orthodox jammers Shlock Rock, Matisyahu takes his music - and his image - seriously. The popping, mellow guitar riffs of Bob Marley, the spiritual howl of Shlomo Carlebach and flowing hip-hop rhythms combine a powerful sense of Jewish identity with a sound that is undeniably secular.
Most impressive is his ability to beatbox - wordless rhythms akin to the percussion section of a Bobby McFerrin arrangement. These familiar sounds work to Matisyahu’s advantage on the R&B track "Refuge," a beautiful acoustic rumination on the redemptive power of faith ("You will be a refuge for me/A tower of strength in the face of the enemy"). In another context, such hyperbole might seem cliché, but Matisyahu is rejoicing, not preaching.
The Hasidic inclination to proselytize is downplayed in favor of Matisyahu’s personal cultural transition. "Aish tamid eternally/Fire burns continuously," he bellows to a grooving bassline on the appropriately titled "Aish Tamid" (Hebrew for "eternal flame"). "Wondering where ya been/ Won’t you come on home to me?"
The way he sings it, it’s a tough quandary to resolve.
The familiar melodies of Lubavitch Shabbos table niggunim space out the more elaborate tracks, creating a personal aura throughout. In blending these two historically distinct sounds, Matisyahu manages to pay homage to a variety of musical styles without coming across as forcefully dogmatic. Shake off the dust…Arise is the brand of contemporary Jewish music with a life beyond the chuppah.
David Greenberger with 3 Leg Torso
Less an homage than an experiment in style, Legibly Speaking is a theatrical ticket to the wisdom of old age. The album features monologues by David Greenberger and accompanying music by Portland-based quintet, 3 Leg Torso. Greenberger has worked as a commentator for NPR’s "All Things Considered" and devoted the past two decades to collecting stories told by nursing home residents for his publication, The Duplex Planet.
This album renews his obsession in a fresh medium, as he recites excerpts from the many interviews he has conducted over original musical tracks to set the appropriate mood.
3 Leg Torso, led by Courtney Von Drehle on accordion, along with a plethora of string, wind and percussion instruments, established their neo-Klezmer sound on their last album, Astor in Paris. They are in familiar form here. Matched with Greenberger’s diverse host of elderly characters, the band’s jagged postmodern rhythms suggest the urban depths of a Saul Bellow novel.
On "Single," a rambling nostalgia trip Greenberger attributes to the mysterious Anna Traut, subtle harmonics and a drifting keyboard provide a gradual buildup from a sense of curiosity ("The gamblers came in and took it over," reminisces Taut via Greenberger of her little Kentucky town. "Wasn’t much fun for the children/And I was a child at the time.") to cynical ("I got married to a snooty guy from upper class").
"Fine Print," finds Taut in a more introspective moment. "You learn from living," Greenberger intones. "And I have lived."
A magnificent violin solo follows this tidbit of advice and joins the throbbing beats during the energetic and powerful final moments of the track.
Admittedly, some of the monologues are more interesting than others. The band does what they can to make the anecdotal "Hoe Handle" hold appeal, but compared to the more dramatic moments on the album, the track seems unnecessary. "Another Bruno," though brief, rewards the observant ear. Greenberger cites singer Kelly Jackson’s bizarre Freudian slip, where she recalls that "my father got his tail cut off," while remembering her childhood canine. But such subtleties seem like small potatoes by the time "Two Strokes," a morbid tale of deteriorating lives, hits its final chords.
"I’m speaking legibly now," Cornelia Richardson says toward the end of the track, giving the album its name. Her tentative optimism shimmers in the shadows of 3 Leg Torso’s ominous background theme.
Amidst the philosophical musings on the epic closing track "Perpetual Motion," painter Alfred Leavitt (with Greenberger as his mouthpiece) explains that "Art is an inherent need for the human species—beauty is in your mind." And, argues this wholly original listening experience, in our ears as well.