Sunday, September 27, 2015

Chazan Benjamin Muller - High Holidays

I got some awesome new High Holydays videos of Benjamin Muller, one of the very best voices I´ve heard in my life. Check it out:

Shma Koleinu - great interpretation and high notes

Kol Nidrei - for nusach lovers

Friday, August 28, 2015

Lipa, the new Shlomo Carlebach

In the aftermath of Lipa's truly remarkable latest album a new picture of Lipa is clearly emerging. Lipa has evolved to be not only a singer but a transformative figure in the JM scene; not only a guy trying to fit in, but an artist conveying a new, fresh message. And this message, of the new Lipa, is present in pretty much all the songs of his album - non-conformism, innovation and positivism. He is often labeled the "Jewish Lady Gaga", but I prefer to compare him to a much more interesting and important person - to Reb Shlomo Carlebach.

Shlomo Carlebach was another transformative figure in Jewish Music. He was more than just music; Carlebach was about connecting to every Jew, irrespective of affiliation, through his simple and catchy niggunim and stories. His impact was truly remarkable and unparalleled, unlike any other Jewish Music artist. 

As popular as they are/were, MBD, Avraham Fried, Shwekey and the like didn't really aim to transform anything. They were great singers, who inspired many with their songs and fitted in what was politically correct in Jewish Music. Lipa is aiming higher, much higher - he wants to transform his community with his music, with a message of openness, education and non-conformism. In his popular Sheni Vechamishi videos, he tackles many hot topics and doesn't shy away from controversy. See two recent examples:

Let's face it - many of the Hareidi/Chassidic communities around the world are increasingly becoming less tolerant and more Ghetto-minded than ever before. As time passes by, these communities are frantically doing what they can to shield themselves from the perceived ills of modern technology and music, and they keep sanctioning more restrictions and chumres. Of course, there's a lot of positive aspects in these communities too but that doesn't mean all is perfect. In fact, it's far from perfect and some of the issues Lipa is raising, like the lack of secular education for example, are really pressing and should be looked into.

Lipa's new album is clearly offering an alternative path. Positivism, non-conformism and innovation, all while staying true to Torah and Halachos. Like Shlomo Carlebach, Lipa is walking his own path and even started his own Shul (Airmont), following Shlomo's footsteps in this aspect. And that does entail some degree of risks - bans, threats and some other unpleasant things that could follow. But like Carlebach, Lipa is now having a real impact, and thus far, a positive in impact in Jewish Music as a whole. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of Lipa's Be Positive

This is it! The album I have been waiting to hear for years  is here, above and beyond everything else that has been out there - Lipa's Be Positive. 

This album has been advertised as the first trance-style JM album but that's an overstatement. Yishai Lapidot, who was one of JM's most talented and popular composers some 10 years ago, explored this genre with Oif Simches, a group that was quite successful precisely because of their use of trance music. Lipa at times reminds me of him, in his improvisations and also in the use of Yiddish slangs here and there. 

But Be Positive's production quality sets a higher standard for JM albums - the arrangements are bold and rythmic, there are some interesting rap and Chazzonus add-ons that enhance the songs and there is a general laid back, artistic athmosphere in the making of this album. 

My main frustration with Jewish music was the lack of innovative lyrics and conformism. Lipa fixes these two problems heads on - the lyrics are fresh and he has evolved to be the main non-conformist artist in JM. And non-conformism is the most powerful asset in music, so the results are far better than Lipa's previous works. Let's get to the songs:

Ma Nishana has a child intro and you all know how I dislike screaming children, but I understand this fits in the the subject of the song - the kids recital of Ma Nishtana in Passover. I still think the intro gives the wrong feel to the song, and the second child piece at 2:55 is better and suffices for the concept. Matt does an amazing job with the harmonies, specially in 2:10 which is star quality and with great chorus towards the very end of the song. It's a good opening act and its well done. ****

Bueh attracted significant controversy after Kol Chai radio from Israel decided to censor it from Tucker's radio show, against his will. Allegedly, the editors felt the song is not appropriate for the honor of three Torah sages mentioned in the song. Like other bans, now everyone wants to hear what's so bad about this song about Gedoilin. Bueh is a song-story, illuminating Lipa's journey to three sages asking for a blessing. Song-stories are rather rare in JM, but as the lyrics in the industry improve, I hope we get many more of songs like this. Shuli Rand, the actor-singer of the blockbuster Ushpizin film, is the master of this genre and Lipa does a great job walking us through the story. "Bueh" was Rabbi Kanieskis' coded blessing to him and the whole songs revolves around this strange word. Then Lipa switches to English, speaking about the Rebbe of Tosh, a very holy, elder Rabbi who has great difficulty speaking these days. So Lipa says he got a "Safek brocho", i.e. "Possibly a blessing" since it's difficult to hear what the Rebbe says. Then he goes to Yiddish. Great song - I don't get the ban. It's just an artist conveying his encounter with the sages - no harm done. Ok it's a modern arrangement, but the message is the same. *****

If you follow this blog you know about my love for Chazzanut, and adding it as Nakdishoch's intro worked flawlessly, and surprisingly since it was not an obvious choice. It really added a layer of authenticity to this song about one of the daily prayers' most important pieces, which can only be sung by with the Chazzan. The high part, Kudoish, is simplistic but the good percussion makes it fly. At 4:00 there's a very interesting bridge with the Chazzan singing the high part and Lipa doing a Yiddish "mantra", increasingly stronger, a là Lapidot in his Oif Simchas debut song but much better. Five star song *****

Vi Lang is the first slow song, Pop style, about the how long Exile has been. The mood and tempo really fit in the theme, a little sad and blue but nevertheless great to hear. Points for being eclectic and not sticking only to the trance style. Matt's vocals are even better in this setting than in Rap, in my opinion. *****

Hiskafia contrasts with the last song - I don't see a connection between the lyrics and the tune. It's a song about the paradox of standing up for your principles but also sometimes folding down. The song felt forced and without a clear direction - just random. Matt didn't really stand out this time. **

Eigel is another song centered in one word, eigel, the golden calf. At first it sounds strange - a song about the golden calf - but eventually Lipa's message comes across. Sometimes you have to stand alone for what's right, as Levi's tribe did then. Even the wisest sages went along with the Golden Calf then, illustrating how sometimes (or most times) the majority is wrong. In fact this song is how Lipa sees himself - as the Levi of the Chassidic community where he grew up. The song itself is not the best but it's more about the message. ****

Positive's intro is again the child, and this time it was surely unnecessary and too much of the shtick. It would be better to skip this part and also the later child solo altogether. This song is clearly inspired by Lady Gaga's Poker Face; perhaps Lipa is poking fun at those who call him the Jewish Lady Gaga? In any case, it's a really innovative and different song, whose strength is the interplay between "negativity" and "nega tzaraas". It's a very creative lyric play, since negativity is the core of Lashon Hara, which is punished by Nega Tzaraas. *****

Hunger talks about starving children, metaphorically. It's about not feeding the children with appropriate education and information, a prevalent problem in Lipa's community. A very intimate and honest plea, and the music reflects his message. Lipa's vocals were great and I loved the low computerized notes. ****

Hakol Tiruzim's style is very interesting, and I specially liked Lipa's opening solo - with an added middle eastern flavor, and after that every repeat with a different feel. Lipa manages to keep changing this song, and it remains interesting even tough it's not hard rock nor a proper slow song. It's a song that requires a subtle dreamy touch and Lipa delivered big time. Tough song ****

The Beat of my Heart is another honest and upfront song about being Jewish, and the lyrics perhaps trying to be Matisyahu-ish. I applaud the effort and the quality of this song, but it's less interesting the other songs. But the ending was superb - Lipa is using more and more his low notes and it works well. ***

Ben Faiga was the song chosen for the album's video clip and is the most catchy song of the album. This song was sung by Lipa by the wedding of the composer,
Meir, and Lipa got so connected to the song that he took it under his wing. The result is a simple, catchy Breslov-themed song that is easy to sing and dance with. It's a real wedding hit, full of energy and the message is really what Lipa is all about - happiness. And the ending was again superb - just Lipa screaming "Nachman" until he is out of breath, Lipa a typical Breslov chassid. Amazing *****

95% of all JM albums would be over and finished at the count of 12, but Lipa still has a few songs under his sleeve and Pshevorske is next. I dont think it brings anything new to the table, and it less innovative than the other songs. **

Haikar Hakavana is, in the other hand, an original song. It illustrates how a singer like Lipa is asked time and time to "sing something yeshivish because the Rosh Yeshiva is here" and how people keep giving bad comments until he complies, finally singing a tasteful niggun. But the niggun eventually becomes a dance song, prompting people to ask him to turn back to Chassidic style. It's a song about the fine line between what genre is accepted and what is not; what the Rabbi's would approve and what they would find insulting; and about how people try everything not to create a problem by singing the wrong song at the wrong occasion. The song is not ground breaking but the message and the delivery is superb. ****

Next two songs are Hebrew versions of earlier songs that were sung mainly in Lipa's preferred Yiddish language. It shows how Lipa is really trying to break out from the Yiddish-speaking public and veer more towards all listeners of Jewish Music. And indeed, he has fans across the spectrum today. 

This is probably my longest review but it's long for a reason; this is an album full of topics to talk about. There's the music, the lyrics, the trance, the chazzanus, the stories and of course, the controversies. What stands out is that every song has a concept, and a beggining/middle/end, bridges and also a little shtick here and there to keep things interesting. 

Lipa has clearly evolved to become a real artist, who is not trying to fit in; he is trying to make soemthing worth listening to. His transformation took quite some time, but it seems to me that he is at his best in this album. Which makes me wonder if he will be stable and strong enough not to end like Matisyahu - another great talent that from day to night changed direction and lifestyle. Lipa changed a lot, for the better, and I surely hope he keeps in his good direction. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lipa's Ben Feige

Lipa's new video is out, and along with it all the usual excitement and also some controversy. Lipa is hardly the first Jewish singer exploring Trance music - even MBD used electronic music in many of his later songs but Lipa is openly championing the use of different sounds in JM. And he is right.

Ben Feige is a very catchy song but I didn't think the arrangement was so groundbreaking. In fact, I find it falls short and fails to bring the best out of this song. But it's surely a great song and probably an easy hit song.

If I can give constructive criticism for Lipa, I think it's time he takes dancing lessons. He loves to make music videos and he loves to dance, but if he really wants to bring these videos to an unexplored territory, he needs to take dancing seriously, because he is quite weak at it. And there's nothing unJewish about dancing. I'm sure choreographers can create an appropriate setup for a Jewish song and make these videos a real hit.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Review of Yaakov Shwekey's Kolot

Here’s my late review of Shwekey’s Kolot album. I’ve covered Shwekey for a long time, and I thought it would make sense to follow up with his album. 

Am Israel is a hit song that Shwekey bet on for this album, and it worked. Very energetic song, faux-Israeli style song that keeps going strong until the end. The arrangement, chorus and all else fit it and allow Shwekey to carry this song very well. *****

Kolot is another clear risk taking song, a departure from Shwekey’s past tendency of sticking with Yeshivish songs. This song is actually a real Israeli-style song and adding Shlomi Shabbat, a legend from non Hassidic Israeli music industry, brings this song to whole different level. Somehow, the interplay between Shwekey and Shabat works - who would think so? The lyrics are very original and what strikes me is how comfortable Shwekey is in this unusual song, showing he can be eclectic too. The opening is gorgeous, with nice choir lines and string, and it’s way above what we are used to in JM. Shwekey’s interpretation and also his Hebrew accent are superb, and the only critique I have is that the song doesn’t get very much momentum; it’s more horizontal mellow, but that is personal. Some people like it. ****

Smeichim is a song I heard individually right after the album came out, and it instantly it became of my all time favourites in JM - that happens rarely today. I would have started the song with a choir, instead of Shwekey, but other than that the arrangement is superb, not too intrusive and with great percussion and strings. I love Shwekey’s diction and Sephardi-accented shticks — a real highlight in this particular song - and I don’t think anyone else would have done as well as Shwekey here. At 2:00 he does a duet with himself, and although Shwekey always does this trick, in this song it sounds specially good. I’m very impressed. The song does get long at 5:00, and the song should have stayed under 4:00 for sure. That’s my only critique. *****

Tefillat Kallah fell short and Shwekey’s interpretation was not as good as the other song we heard in this album. I think this song requires a much sweeter voice, and he was too strident, in my opinion. It’s a subtle song, that requires subtle interpretation, however Shwekey sang it like he sings his hit Meheira, and he misses it.

Ach Sameach’s lyrics are all over the place, a mix of different passages of Chazal and I believe some Rabbi Nachman Breslau (Spotify doesn’t give any credits, so excuse me about possible imprecisions). This a Jewish Music song, forced into Israeli style arrangement and it is much less original than the first three. It feels “tired”. **

Zeh Hakatan is a song about life, an unusual theme in Jewish Music and it’s nice to see that coming up. The tune is great and difficult, requiring a really good singer and unlike in Tefillat Kalla, Shwekey finds the right mood for this song. The song has a lot momentum and it allows the singer to really focus in the words - there’s a connection between the lyrics and tune. *****

Although I appreciate Shwekey’s risk taking - this song, Osim Teshuva, is really out of the box for JM standards - Shwekey seems a little out of place in this song. It’s a real Moshav Band style of song, a little hippie, and I don’t see the fit here for Shwekey . As it is done, the song doesn’t fly, but I must make a special mention to the great guitar solos and the great moment at 3:20, when the arrangement gets more accoustic and laid back. **

Kamu Baneha, by Shwekey’s longtime composer Waldner, is an exceptional song. I love the shtick in the word Vayehalela-lalala, and the composition requires falsettos and a lot of interpretation. Shwekey does a good job in the first part but I think he again hits to hard in the main part of the song; I think he had to be much more subtle, less punchy. ****

Et Rekod is hit song from beginning to start. The arrangement is top-class, also the vocal arrangement lines are perfect, I would not change a thing. The song itself is very interesting, and I would’ve featured it in the beginning of the album instead of Ach Sameach. It’s a great song to dance, with great lyrics and energy. It’s a song type that is also much more fitting for Shwekey, oppoesed to Osim Teshuva. Five star song and a good surprise at this point of the album. *****

Asara Bnei Adam is a typical Razel song, with original lyrics and interesting tune. I would’ve featured Razel from the beginning and only later have Shwekey join in, because Razel adds a lot of authenticity and extra taste to a song like this one. The partnership Shwekey-Razel is one of the most exciting and unusual ones in Jewish Music, since Razel brings to mainstream the Israeli Jewish Music style, something we needed desperately in the US based JM industry. He adds musicality, lyrics and authenticity that was so lacking. I personally don’t connect very much with this song but it’s a valid musical shot. ***

You guys know I’ve been extremely critical of Shwekey in the past for not trying something different and for not pushing the boundaries. In fact, one of my most popular blog posts is the one blasting Shwekey’s album Ad Bli Dai for this reason. I really felt Shwekey had stopped in time, and that he wasn’t doing anything creative. Kolot is a really great surprise and a much more interesting direction for him - the creative and production value of this album is unparalleled in JM today. Shwekey is now brining new sounds and new lyrics, and I give credit where credit is due. This is probably my favorite album in 2014, alongside Eli Shwebel’s Hearts Mind.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Eli Marcus Dovid Hamelech Review

Eli Marcus debut album has been well advertised everywhere and I’m glad to have had a chance to listen to it in Spotify. It’s interesting how virtually all new JM albums get to Spotify rather quickly; that’s amazing.

Sheyibone it’s difficult to define. Not very energetic, too many trumpets and throws us back some 20 years. We also have Yossi Green’s classic chorus, so I wonder if this is intentionally a retro song. I don’t get it. **

I love how direct Refoeinu starts - right into the song, and this is a special song. Groovy and modern, Benny Friedman-style, it’s a simple and successful song because it showcases Eli Marcus’ vocals and also his music style. ****

Dovid Hamelech should have been the opening song of the album. It’s full of energy, and has perfect chorus and arrangements (I specially like how the tempo changes) . I guess Eli wanted Yossi Green’s chorus featured in the first songs, but sometimes you have to do what you gotta do. This is a winner, Sheyibone is not. *****

Like Refoeinu, Kol Torah has no intro and all you have are the beautiful lyrics, speaking about the Giving of the Torah. Eli’s vocals are impeccable, and also his interpretation (I love how he pronounces “shotek”, well according to the meaning of the word). Than the song goes fast, losing a lot of power and becoming rather forgetful. 1st part is a five star song. The 2nd is average if not below average. So I give 4 stars. Special mention for the beautiful finish. ****.

Mazal Tov has interesting lyrics, and a potential to be the next wedding hit song. To me that doesn’t really mean the song is great; in fact it’s not. But it’s easy to dance on it, so I think this song will prove to be quite popular. ***

Chavivi is rather forgetable, far from being a disaster but not really a song I can relate to. Too much repetition in the lyrics and not a real connecting between them and the song. **

Av Harachamin starts with tasteful piano + accoustic guitar arrangement, and it sets the table for an interesting song. The 1st part of the song is great but the 2nd is pretty much the same thing, just with a little higher notes, so the song gets stuck, not developing into something more interesting. With better lyrics in the second part, this could have been a real winner. It isn’t. ***

Osios is a groovy song - I love the guitars in the 2nd part. It’s a simple song but it’s really well done, again reminding me of Benny Friedman. All in all, this is perhaps the most simple but best fast song so far. *****

Look inside is again a song with a perfect arrangement - I’m blown away by the production value of this entire album. It has the JM feel but it pushes the envelope further - I note the whistling in this song, which is truly amazing and unusual. This is clearly the comfort zone of Eli and I like the style. ****

Keili Machzik is for me the traditional filler song, I always hope not to encounter them. Ok the lyrics are original, but the song itself is more of the same, and I want less of the same.

Yishtabach starts with a vinyl sound, quite original, but it quickly turns to be a usual yeshivish slow song. It’s a rather nice Yeshivish song, just not my style. You can tell this is Yossi Green just by how the words fit the song, but as much as I love Yossi Green, this is not his finest.

Eli seems to be fitting into the Chabad, modern niche, like his cousin Benny Friedman. I see a lot of similarities, and that’s a great compliment because Benny is one of my favorite singers today, but the songs in this album are weaker than Benny’s. I do like the fact that none of the songs are too long - common mistake in JM and it shows Eli and his team has common sense that is lacking in most singers today. But Eli has definetly potential and I hope he can get even better songs in the future. If I have to choose between Eli Marcus and Bari Weber, which I reviewed just now as well, I choose Marcus for sure.

Bari Weber's Ben Melech Review

Yachad has a fabulous arrangement, that’s caries this song further. It masks the fact that the song is actually weak - just another Hebrew kumbaya JM song about Achdut, which is the latest must have song in every album. And like Shiru Lamelech-style, which was also being recycled in every album in the early 2000’s, this will pass too. ***

Vashen has Lipa’s blueprint all over, both in the vocal style and in the song theme. I’m guessing Lipa gave one his weaker songs to Weber - not really a home run, and to put it as a second song it makes me feel like Weber is too busy trying to emulate others rather than breaking his own new ground. **

Veshomri - passable and I don’t see a connection between the song and the words at all. In other words, a sound I’ve heard so often, with words that don’t add anything to the song. Towards the end (3:20) it does get more connected to Shabbos, but it’s just a bridge and it’s too little to late. **

Lemikdosheich is clearly intended to be a Zemiros style song, and although Weber’s vocals are great, this song doesn’t stand out in any way. I’m negatively surprised about this one, I wouldn’t imagine he would go for such a weak song. The previous songs had flaws too, but this one is a nadir. *

Shehakol is a great song! Weber, the composer, takes a risk, because the lyrics are so simple and everyday-ish - Shehakol Neye Bedvoroi, but the risk pays off. The song’s opening is amazing - a folksy accordion intro - and shortly the actual song. It’s simple, out of the box and fun. What else can I ask for? However this song should’t cross the 3:50/4:00 mark and it does, becoming too long. If not for that, it would be a perfect song. ****

Tuisse - a very powerful, Selichot-style, song. It didn’t click with me, probably because it’s too mellow but I loved the improv t 2:50, when Bari tells us a story right in the middle of the song, and also the falsetto at 4:30. Without a doubt, Bari has one of the best vocals out there today ****

As the album gets towards this points, it’s clearly gaining momentum as Bari shifts more towards his style - Both Tuisse and V’atu are composed by Bari. V’atu is a simple yet modern song, reminding me of Yoely Greenfield because of the Heimish feel. At 1:55 Bari’s vocals shine again, with interesting dissonant notes that are rare in JM. But the song gets too long, it should’ve been under 3mins. ****

Next is a kumzits song, Nigun Lev. Traditionally these kind of songs are forgettable and this is no exception (Benny Friedman’s niggun in his 1st album IS one of the exceptions). This nigun is tasteful though, just not original enough. And 5:29 minutes length is just insanely long for this song, it’s unjustifiable. **

Heiliger’s arrangement, like most in this album, is great and contemporary. In fact, what stands out in this album, more than the songs, are the arrangements. So I need to give credit where credit is due. But like many of the previous songs, the song is weak however this is Bari’s comfort zone and that’s what he likes to sing. ***

Ben Melech is the album’s title song, and it’s a trademark Bari song - heartfelt, heimish and lots of niggunim. Not really singable for most of us, but I thought it was ok as a niggun - better than Niggun Lev. There also words but they are just fillers for the niggun. This will never be a hit song, but it’s a nice experiment. But no experiment can be 7 minutes long - again too long. ****

V’afili - brings nothing new to the album - in the same level of the other heimish songs. ***

This is not really my style of album. I love Yoely Greenfeld and I was hoping this would be as good, but although Bari’s vocals are excellent and the production value here is way above average, overall I think the songs of this album are average at best. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I wish I was there? Helgot + Motzen was certainly a chazzanus extravaganza

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lipa's Purim Video from Last Year

In case you missed it last year.

I was not an early fan of Lipa, but it's impossible to deny how developed to be a true ground breaker and showman.