Thursday, June 12, 2008

Benny Amar's Am Echad Review

"Walahi, Walaha!". After some ten years, I hear Benny Amar singing this once again, this time in his debut album rather than live in concert alongside with Miami Boys Choir. I've been following Benny Amar for sometime already - he has been performing since an early age, and was part of Miami Boys Choir, but his musical career took off when he started Kol Zimra, an upbeat acapella group with two good albums in their record and perhaps the only JM group to have performed for His Excellency Mr Bush, during the White House Hannukka ceremony three or something years ago.

I specially liked Kol Zimra's second album, which has much less "yeshivish" feel if you compare it to Lev Tahor or Chevra acapella, and until now Benny Amar was just that. But with Am Echad, he goes solo and tries to take off as a lead singer, which frankly came to me as a surprise - in Kol Zimra's albums his voice was still too "raw". But the Benny we hear in this album is a new singer, with improved vocals and singing technique, surely because of his great coach Chazzan Moshe Schulhof from Aventura FL. Chaim raised questions over Amar's voice, but as I see it he has an Yeedle-styled voice - slightly nasal and screatchy - but these could turn to be assets with good voice coaching and if you have landed in Schulhof's hands you don't need go anywhere else. Amar did the first step and is way better than before, but he can still improve and I'm sure Moshe will keep him moving.

Before I get to the review let me give you a little briefing on Amar's Bio. Originally from Brazil, Benny moved to the US in his teens and became part of Miami Boys Choir. His father, back in Brazil, is a violinist and his influence can be felt throughout this album with the numerous violin lines and breathtaking violin solos. Here we go:

With great technique, Benny carries Am Echod very well and keeps the energy flowing. The violin solo in 2:49 is one of the best I've heard in JM and it's also interesting that he changes a bit the tune using a minor note in 4:18 (when pronouncing "Shebashomaim") opposed to the natural note used in the beginning of the song (i.e. 1:23). Amar's pronunciation of "echod" in 4:08 is very weird, and I think JMusic Insider, a.k.a. JBlogmeister, also felt this, but that's a minor issue. On a side note, I don't see why there's was a need for a child soloist in this song - I'm very critical of overusing child singers and Benny used this shtick in four songs. Not that the boy is a bad singer, not at all, I just believe this shtick should be used in songs that have something to do with children i.e. in Gabay's Zaroh or in AKAPella's Children. But here, I think it's odd and unnecessary (I will posting about this topic soon). ****

Gadol Hashalom has creative lyrics and a good arrangement but the song itself is somewhat forgetable. And once again there's the kid singing, taking the spotlight away from Amar and forcing the kid to scream his lungs out to reach the final note. Once again, I'm not criticizing the boy, who has a good voice; I just don't think Amar played his cards well in this one, I think it would be better to just have him singing alone, highlighting his voice and his interpretation. The backup vocals didn't help much and in a slow song like this one, good backup are a must. Mike Boxer would've delivered; pity he's not part of this project. ***

Hevei starts off with the same feel of Yossi Green's reggae song Al Todin, but this song is not real reggae, it's a mesh - the arrangement uses the middle-eastern musical scale alongside with reggae-sounding guitars. Quite wacky but it just worked and this song by Boruch Levine (his second Middle-eastern hit - the first was Shwekey's Halo Yadata) is one of this album's best pieces. Amar did a great job in the vocals - his best vocals in the album - and the funky Kol Zimra-styled backup vocals fitted like a glove in this song. *****

Tzur is a contemporary-sounding song that has great potential - the first part is amazing, world-class, and the song is overall good. The background vocals are very weak and "empty", so this song falls short and doesn't gets momentum. There's no modulation, that is, the song always stays in the same key set and that was mistake. But it's not a bad song, it's just disappointing because it could've been perfect. ***

I love the way Amar sings the first part of Koli, great interpretation and technique. The arrangement is excellent, specially the piano and violin, and the song is beautifull. However, having in mind the lyrics of the second part - Hoitzio Mimasger Nafshi - it's inevitable to compare it to the second part of Hakshivo from Shalsheles, which has the same lyrics. There's something in common in the two songs, and Shalsheles' song is unbeatable, but this one also has a charm of its own. Once again the violin guy does a smashing job in 5:00, he is really good, and the song goes over 7 minutes, a record. Benny did a great job in the closing of the song, he has a good range, and the backup vocals were not bad this time. ****

Mikdash Melech is an old composition by Amar, with his signature "Walahi Walaha" shtick I mentioned in the opening of this review. It's another wacky song, with a salsa arrangement, and it's Amar's cup-of-tea music style, like Hevei. In these wacky songs his glaring personality shines out, with great energy and at the bottom of the song he again does a great job. ****

Eliahu's arrangement is interesting and the backup vocals are actually good - it's obviously mo kiss - but I personally don't like how the composer worked out the part "bimheuro iovo eleinu" as it didnt fit to well with the rest of the song, but as I said this is very personal, others might not mind.
I don't have much else to say about this one, it didnt click very much with me. ***

Sova is a great techno three-part, with creative lyrics and an AKAPella-styled intro (Axel F). This is not a typical song - its another wacky one - and once again benny is in his comfort zone, keeping the energy and pace of this cool song. I love his improvisation towards the end, the backup harmonies (specially in 2:25) and, wow, the guitar solo - excellent. On the negative side, using the very young child soloist in this edgy song is inexusable and impossible to understand. What were they thinking?

Vehoshivo is the best slow song of this album and I would swap it with gadol, as this song deserves to be in the spotlight. The tune, words and feel of this song resemble Shalsheles, which I love, but there's something more here - the guest chazzan Moshe Schulhof at the end is the best moment of this album. Chaim mentioned that Schulhof seems to be out of place, and he does have a point, but I would put it differently - Kaufman and the kid are out of place in this song. There are too many guest soloists and I believe Schulhof deserved a prime guest appearance i.e. just him and Amar in a duet. Moshe is one of the world's greatest Chazzanim alongside with Helfgot and Yaakov Motzen and this song highlights his spotless vocals and amazing music dynamics. Few people do this so well. With such great talent at hand, Amar should've let Moshe sing the first part as well or even have him sing in other songs. Or you think the kids do a better job? Come on. ****

Omdos was originally featured in kol zimra's second album as a mellow ballad and it was a rather forgetable song of a great composer, abie rotenberg. Amar tries once again to make this song fly, this time in a rock version. If there's one style abie doesn't gets along with that style is surely rock - in journeys, dveykus and aish there's no rock - and despite benny's efforts to make this song sound decent, at the end of the day one thing remains true: this is a very weak rotenberg song. Period. **

This album has a few constants: creative songs, good lyrics, topclass arrangements and overused kid singers (Amar's Miami boys choir background might explain). Except for a few songs, the backup vocals fell short and i keep thinking how cool it would be if Mike Boxer was part of this project. But no album is perfect and its important to keep in mind that this is Benny's debut, and as such its with no doubt a great success.

After Fried, gabay and yossi green's albums the bar has been raised and cheesy "more of the same" kind of albums don't fool people anymore. Amar's album is a great surprise and probably the best debut album of the past few years, alongside with Spinner. And before I forget, "Walahi Walaha!".


chaim said...

great review ... I agree with most of what you wrote. I think Mikdash Melech is the best song on the CD and thats funny cause its the oldest. Mikdash is benny at his best, the energy really comes through on that song.

Anonymous said...

jewish groups preform at the white house hanukah ceremony every year

A Jewish Music Insider said...

Thanks for the link YK. I enojoyed reading your review and I thought it was very fair I'm actually surprised no one took note of something else: The mix. I won't say more you either know or don't know.

Anonymous said...

a jewish...

you didn't comment on tyhe mix in your review either...what do you have to say about it? i would love to hear.

A Jewish Music Insider said...

I didn't say anything because I wanted other peoples input to see if I was being a bit too critical. The mix was not as good as it should of been. If they could re do the mix on the next press they should: it is dry on many songs.

Anonymous said...

they used a guy marc him, i did...
he is a grammy winning engineer, with great credits...dry is in style, just take al listen to whats out there in the world...i thought the mix was fabulous - the closest to goyish music thst there has every been

joel said...

Do you have a man crush on Mike Boxer it seems that you are over comlimentary of him. It's almost as unhealthy as Rubin's man crush on Benny Friedman.
This guy does not come close to Spinner! Please!
Spinner put out a masterpiece of thirteen songs Amar has eight( original) songs. For that reason alone you cant compare them.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I have no idea where the last guy came from, but im really glad to see anti-semitism has found its way to Jewsih music reviews. Nice job hater.

anyway,regarding the mix, i agree with JB. I also looked up marc urselli, and was quite impressed with his resume, but not with his mix on this album. its not a BAD mix, but def not a great one. The drums sound completely unmixed on this album, just listen to the snare. While someone pointed out that his style is "dry" - thats fine for whatever style he does, but you need to mix in the albums style - and that is a lttle more polished.

YK said...

Hi All,

Firstly, I deleted the vicious comment by the anonymous dinosaur (the link is a must-read article).


Anon 1,
That can be true, I only heard about Kol Zimra's performance. Who else was there?

JM Insider,
I never comment about the mix in my reviews since I believe most readers don't pay attention or care much for it. I personally thought it was ok, not a major problem at all.


Firstly, Amar has ten great songs while Spinner has two sure flops - Shalom Aleichem and Oseh Shalom. Like Chaim, I also advocate for more songs per album, but having more songs is not equal to have more good songs. From your comment in JM Insider's blog, it sounds like you haven't heard this album in it's entirety. Am I right?

Anon 2,
As I said, I don't think the mix is a major problem in this one.


YK said...

And Joel, I like what's good and M Boxer is just that, and few people realize that. Every album he has touched is gold, so I think he deserves credit.


joel said...

Benny Amar has two tracks that were previously recorded. One on Kol Zimra and one on Emes. That makes eight remaining original songs. Thats simply not enough for 15 bucks plus tax. Even if Spinner has two duds that still gives him 11 songs and Amar 8 songs.
By the way I just listened to the Lipa sampler. This album is going to be the biggest selling album in JM since Chazak. It sounds like a monster hit with 14 songs. thats six more than Amar!

Anonymous said...

It is very true. Just because you didn't hear about it doesnt mean it didn't happen. Every year Jewish groups preform at the hanukkah ceremony.

For instance the year after Kol Zimra was the Ramaz Yeshiva choir.
the year after that it was the Jewish Choir from West Point. This year it was the HooShir choir.

Levi said...

The song V'hoshiva was originally sung on the album Emes#1 by Shlomie Kaufman.
P.S when are you going to review Lipa
new album?

Anonymous said...

Amazing CD, Amazing singer, Amazing performer.
Just saw him last night at a bar mitzva.
Benny made the simcha really, really, really unforgetable.

YK said...


As I mentioned, I only saw him performing once and he has lots of energy. I just hope his album is selling - with the 8th note, lipa and yeedle out there the competition is fierce. But I like his music.


Joel said...

Check this out, Benny is really funny and energetic in here:

and in here:

Hope you enjoy as much as I did.