Category Archives: Retrospective

Album Review: Alex Clare, “Tail of Lions” (repost)

(I’m currently on some longer posts for JMU, but in the meantime I thought I’d repost one of my old pieces from Yidwise (my other JM blog) to tide everyone over, and this review of Alex Clare’s most recent album is one I’m particularly proud of. It was originally posted on  January 27 of this year, shortly after the album’s American release. Enjoy!)

British singer-songwriter Alex Clare is no stranger to career ups and downs. His first album, 51ol3qyso4l-_ss500The Lateness of the Hour, was a critical and commercial disappointment in the UK. That, combined with Clare – an Orthodox baal t’shuvah – turning down a tour with Adele that fell on Shabbos and High Holidays, caused his label, Island Records, to drop him. Then the album’s single “Too Close” ended up in ads for Internet Explorer 9 and subsequently went double-platinum, convincing the label to quickly re-sign him and give the album a much more successful U.S. release. Then his follow-up, 2014’s Three Hearts, was again disappointingly received (due to lack of label support, according to Clare), charting much lower and earning more mixed reviews.

Understandably, Clare, now a husband and father, felt the need for a change of pace. He left the label for good and moved to Jerusalem in 2015, where he immersed himself in Hasidic teachings. Then he returned to London the following summer, connected with friend Chris Hargreaves of the UK band Submotion Orchestra, and the two set sail on the River Lea in a narrowboat, where they spent several weeks writing and recording songs. The result is Clare’s third effort, Tail of Lions – a Pirkei Avos reference that advocates being a follower of greats rather than a leader of scoundrels. Clare, however, might be ready to do some pretty great leading if this album is any indication.

A common criticism of Clare’s earlier albums was that they overemphasized one element (throbbing dubstep on Hour, glossy folk-pop on Hearts) at the expense of Clare’s own musical identity. By contrast, Tail comfortably incorporates those styles and several others – the spacey trip-hop of “Get Real”, the rousing funk-rock of “Gotta Get Up” and “Surviving Ain’t Living”, the angry arena rock of “Basic” and Open My Eyes” – all while still giving him plenty of sonic room to breathe – and boy, does he. Unfettered by label demands or public expectations, Clare’s performance here is dripping with rawness – not only in his near-ragged voice (undoubtedly an acquired taste for some), but in the emotion he draws out of nearly every track, bringing fury and angst to the rockers and quiet sadness to the ballads with equally chilling impact. If Clare ever was just another British soul singer yelling over techno beats a la John Newman, he thoroughly shatters that image here.

On the lyrical side of things, Clare has obviously outgrown the sordid breakup songs he used to be known for (and which, he has implied, were mostly the label’s idea anyway), so it’s no surprise that this album goes for somewhat deeper subject matter. His faith is a clear and present influence; beyond the album title, “Love Can Heal” quotes Solomon with “There ain’t nothing new under the sun,” while “You’ll Be Fine”, glib title aside, restores crucial context to oft-abused quotes from Rebbe Nachman and the Maharash. Yet rather than settle for blissed-out positivity like many a BT recording artist, Clare is all too willing to show his humanity. “Tell Me What You Need” and “Tired From The Fire” show the ups and downs of a relationship. “Surviving Ain’t Living” and “Gotta Get Up” strike down apathy and conformity. “Basic” defends a troubled man to those who have written him off. And perhaps most boldly, “Open My Eyes” expresses Clare’s frustration over the political chaos in America and the UK in the past year with a level of insight that should appeal to voters of any persuasion. The album’s thematic mission statement seems to be Edmund Burke’s “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

This all might sound like heavy stuff, but part of Clare’s genius is keeping everything pretty accessible; only two songs are longer than four minutes, and nearly all of them have a strong hook to get embedded in your brain and easily relatable emotions, ensuring that all of the album’s deep themes go down easy. With his ability to incorporate so many styles and themes while still maintaining a consistent focus, Alex Clare is a revelation for both Jewish music and music in general. If any musician deserves to be a trendsetter, he most certainly does.

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Every Time I’ve Seen Daniel Kahn Live (Michael Croland)

Guest Post by Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk

On Monday night, I saw Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, which calls its music “Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret,” at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. It was my eighth time seeing Berlin-based Kahn perform, including with Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, with other musical outlets, and as an actor. Below is a recap of all eight shows.

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Photo: Adam Berry

 

While some Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird songs have discernible punk rock elements musically, that isn’t really the point. I’ve seen Kahn rock out as part of a seven-piece band, and I’m seen him solo or with little accompaniment. In Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, Kahn explained why he thought “punk”—or “punkfolk—was a fitting label:

There’s the rejection of . . . commercial market populism: the idea of trying to make something that’s appealing to everybody. There’s the cultishness of it. There’s the idea that we are building a functional life raft for endangered ideas. . . . There’s a do-it-yourself [approach] . . . we’re not part of a larger market structure. There’s a kind of exuberant irreverence and aggressiveness to it. There’s the sardonic acid humor. There’s the theatricality of it, with trying to avoid sentimentality and nostalgia. I’d say that, to a large degree, it has to do with our willingness to engage with some dark s*** — like, really dark s***. But in a way that it’s playful and serious but doesn’t have the adolescent kitsch of the way that, say, metal deals with the same issues.

September 2009 (Barbès, Brooklyn): I saw Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird for the first time at this fun, lively show in an intimate venue. As part of a seven-piece band that also included trombonist Dan Blacksberg (Electric Simcha), Kahn was joined by two electric guitarists, Vanya Zhuk (Nayekhovichi) and Avi Fox-Rosen (Yiddish Princess). The songs rocked harder with an extra oomph, especially “Yosl Ber/A Patriot.”

January 2012 (Symphony Space, Manhattan): Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird played as part of an “Artists Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” show organized by the Manhattan JCC on MLK Day. Kahn played an unreleased song called “Among Us,” which addressed the nature of leaders and heroes and how it’s the people who have to create change. My friend Eli was so moved by the lyrics that he emailed Kahn afterward to get the song.

March 2013 (Gramercy Theatre, Manhattan): I went with my friend Dan, and this was a great show by Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird. In introducing “In Kamf,” Kahn said, “This is a punk rock tune from the 1880s. Play it f***ing loud!” As he explained in Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, he took a Yiddish song about the struggles of sticking up for the poor and gave it a punk “treatment.” He matched the “strong” and “defiant” message with a guitar riff reminiscent of The Clash’s “London Calling.”

May 2015 (Sidewalk, Manhattan): Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird played on May Day, which was quite appropriate for an artist with songs about labor issues like “March of the Jobless Corps.” In an intimate venue with a piano onstage, the cabaret side of “Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret” was evident.

June 2015 (The Paper Box, Brooklyn): At Borscht Ball, the kickoff event for KulturFest, Kahn marched toward the stage while boldly shouting, “Nazaroff is coming!” I was cracking up because I realized that most people had no clue what he was talking about. He and other members of the band The Brothers Nazaroff performed songs from their forthcoming debut, The Happy Prince.

November 2015 (Castillo Theater, Manhattan): What better way is there to spend a birthday than seeing Death of a Salesman in Yiddish? Kahn played the role of Biff.

December 2015 (DROM, Manhattan): At the Yiddish New York Klezmer Blowout, Kahn made a guest appearance with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars. As I noted in the first blog post for OyOyOyGevalt.com, “I’ve attended some notable Jewish concerts in the last decade, but with so many YNY festivalgoers present, this was the first time where I really felt transported to another world. It was like a parallel universe where klezmer and Yiddish culture were appreciated—and rocked out to—by engaged fans in such a resounding way.”

April 2017 (Joe’s Pub, Manhattan): Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird consisted of Kahn on vocals, accordion, piano, and acoustic guitar and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, with occasional guests. The first song with vocals featured just Kahn and Shulman-Ment, but it was evident that Kahn’s brand of klezmer has an edge to it, thanks in part to the fast tempo, his snarling in Yiddish, and saying the f-word as part of his English translation. One of Kahn’s greatest strengths is playing old Yiddish songs that offer social commentary about contemporary circumstances. He explained that when he released “Embrace the Fascists” (based on a 1931 German song) for his 2009 album, he thought it was clever to have an old song that spoke to contemporary times. Now he wished it wasn’t so clever and fitting. “[The songwriters] wrote this in 1931, about Richard Spencer,” Kahn quipped. He introduced “Sunday After the War” by noting that he wrote it during the Iraq War, for its relevance about one war, and it turned out to be pertinent to multiple things. “I hope some day I can stop playing the damn thing,” he said. Kahn has written, “I wish we did not have to sing about crippling poverty and sweatshops and imperialist war anymore. But we do. Those old songs remind us that the problems we face today are nothing new. We can learn much from those who struggled with them before us.”

Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published in April 2016 by Praeger (an imprint of ABC-CLIO). Check out the book to learn more about Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird and other Jewish punk artists!

Double Digits: 10 Moshiach Oi! Shows

Guest Post by Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk

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Michael Croland (right) with Moshiach Oi!. Photo by Dan Rauchwerk.

Seeing the “Torah hardcore” band Moshiach Oi! live can be a powerful, religious experience. Singer Yishai Romanoff graced the cover of my book, Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk. Here’s a recap of the 10 Moshiach Oi! concerts I’ve attended.

February 2009 (Don Pedro’s, Brooklyn): It was Super Bowl Sunday, so a scheduled late show didn’t start until even later because the game was still going on. Moshiach Oi! was the last of four bands, which meant that they played from 1:15 to 1:45 am. There were four people (including the drummer of one of the earlier bands) in the crowd when Moshiach Oi! started playing. By their last song, I was the only audience member left and Yishai was giving me the microphone to sing the “Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!” part of the eponymous song “Moshiach Oi!”

August 2009 (Piano’s, Manhattan): This was the CD release show for their debut album, Better Get Ready, as part of the Shemspeed Summer Music Festival. I wrote for heebnvegan, “They generated a mosh pit that at times was quite fierce, rocked out hard, and were accompanied by guest maraca player Mr. Rattles. … Despite many songs’ basic lyrics, no one could deny the power of Yishai’s words when he screamed ‘Shema Yisroel’ while crouched down in the pit.”

October 2009 (Millinery Center Synagogue, Manhattan): After Shabbat ended, Moshiach Oi! played a show that didn’t start until after midnight. Blanket Statementstein also performed; the band has varying lineups, but I believe this was an eight-person lineup that included all four members of Moshiach Oi! Both bands are on Shabasa Records, which is run by Menashe Yaakov Wagner, the guitarist of both groups.

June 2010 (Sixth Street Community Synagogue, Manhattan): Moshiach Oi! played at the Punk Jews fundraising party, along with Blanket Statemenstein, Golem, and Y-Love. As I wrote for heebnvegan, “I’ve seen Moshiach Oi! four or five times, and the Punk Jews show will go down in history as the night they really came into their own. Frontman Yishai Romanoff sacrificed the intensity of a second guitar so that he could reign over the microphone and immerse himself in the pit. As he preached to the audience (which he repeatedly referred to as ‘Jewish people’) and thrashed about, he was at one with the crowd and developed a strong rapport.”

November 2011 (Alphabet Lounge, Manhattan): Moshiach Oi! played with Rocka Zion (a Shabasa band that includes some of the same people) and the Gangsta Rabbi. As you can hear 0:04 into this video, Yishai dedicated Moshiach Oi!’s opening song, “Baruch Hashem,” to me.

December 2011 (Public Assembly, Brooklyn): Moshiach Oi! played with labelmates Blanket Statementstein and Rocka Zion. This might have been the first Moshiach Oi! show where I spontaneously took off my main shirt (but left my undershirt on) during the performance to feel unencumbered while rocking out.

October 2013 (Drom, Manhattan): This was the DVD release show for Punk Jews, and it was the fourth screening of the film that I attended. Afterward Moshiach Oi!, Breslov Bar Band, and Amazing Amy performed.

August 2015 (Creative Corner, West Hempstead): This was the first Moshiach Oi! show in a long while, as Yishai had been living out of state. They and White Shabbos (featuring some of the same musicians) played to a crowd that consisted largely of Orthodox families.

June 2016 (Town and Village Synagogue, Manhattan): I was fortunate to have Moshiach Oi! play at the book release party for Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk. I blogged, “Moshiach Oi! was the right band for the occasion! … Moshiach Oi! played a 45-minute set with all of my Torah hardcore favorites, including ‘Baruch Hashem,’ ‘Yetzer Hara,’ ‘Avoda Zara,’ ‘Shema Yisroel,’ ‘The Petek,’ ‘Am Yisroel Chai,’ and ‘Avraham Was a Punk Rocker.’ The latter two came up during the Q&A when someone asked me which biblical figure was the most punk, and when Moshiach Oi! performed both, Romanoff handed the microphone to me for a couple lines each.”

September 2016 (Millinery Center Synagogue, Manhattan): I’d seen Moshiach Oi! play at this shul before, also with Blanket Statementstein opening, but this time the show was in the sanctuary and the bimah was the stage. They played “Rabeinu’s Army” for the first time, and it was so new that Yishai took over Menashe Yaakov’s guitar because the latter didn’t know the song yet. Yishai spontaneously gave me the microphone to sing “Avraham! Avraham!” in “Avraham Was a Punk Rocker” and “Am Yisroel Chai! We will never die!” in “Am Yisroel Chai.” Once again I spontaneously doffed my shirt (but not my undershirt) to feel unencumbered while rocking out.

Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published in April 2016 by Praeger (an imprint of ABC-CLIO). Check out the book to learn more about Moshiach Oi! and other Jewish punk artists!