Category Archives: Review

Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird: The Butcher’s Share (Album Review by Michael Croland)

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

Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird herald their new album as “klezmer-punk anthems for the revolution or the apocalypse,” with songs that “speak to the political moment as much as they address eternal struggles of class and liberation.” Kahn has often played with the past and the present, letting radicals and revolutionaries from yesteryear have a say through a contemporary lens. In the era of Trump, the alt-right, and Brexit, his approach isn’t a stretch. It’s timely.

Following a short intro song, The Butcher’s Share kicks off with its boisterous title track. The lyrics discuss an ignorance-is-bliss approach to “the power people wield” and human rights, stressing the importance of “our needs” over “evil deeds.” In the last few lines, once the point has been become clear, Kahn snarls and shouts to vehemently deliver his message: People pay someone else to do the dirty work and look the other way.

The group made a video for the catchy “Freedom Is a Verb,” which posits that freedom is “something you must constantly” work for in order to have it. Upon introducing the song at a show in New York on the last night of Passover, Kahn talked about how the theme of freedom was timely. But the song doesn’t narrowly define freedom as liberation from a ruler’s enslavement. As in other songs on the album, the socialist Kahn has biting social commentary about the masses who have gotten the short end of the stick, which is all too timely year-round nowadays. Kahn sings: 

But lower pay and higher rent’s another kind of violence / The violence of silence and of greed / The violence of feeling your irrelevance revealing / Every way in which you never will be freed“.

“99%—Nayn-Un-Nayntsik” pits the 99% vs. the 1%. It’s an anthem in Yiddish and English for the era of Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, and beyond. Kahn sings, “Ninety-nine is a community, one percent is a f–k-you-nity.”

“Arbeter Froyen” is a prettier folk song about hard-working women. The electric guitar solo is a rockin’ interlude, but it’s not intense or reminiscent of punk.

Of course, this so-called “klezmer-punk” isn’t punk rock. Kahn’s longer label, “Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret,” is more fitting. Kahn has never been restricted by a singular vision in his art or his message. The Butcher’s Share features four songs that were written for a 2016 staging of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story and two Abraham-themed “bonus tracks.” There’s a song with lyrics by the late Adrienne Cooper and music by Frank London (The Klezmatics and Hasidic New Wave). The album includes guest vocalists Michael Alpert (Brave Old World), Sarah Gordon (Yiddish Princess), Sasha Lurje (Goyfriend), Lorin Sklamberg (The Klezmatics), and Psoy Korolenko (The Brothers Nazaroff). Those contributors give a feel for a wide range of what contemporary klezmer has to offer. The same could be said for the album. As timely as the social commentary songs are, there’s more to The Butcher’s Share.

Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published last year 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!

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Moshiach Oi! Double the Na Nach on Rock Rabeinu (Michael Croland)

[Michael Croland was kind enough to share yet another guest post with JMU. My own thoughts on this album will be posted in the near future.]

Moshiach Oi! have narrowed their focus over the past nine years.

When I first found out about Moshiach Oi! in 2008, guitarist Menashe Yaakov Wagner described Moshiach Oi! as “perhaps the world’s first hardcore vegan straight-edge Orthodox Jewish punk band.” By the time I met and interviewed them a few months later, the label was more succinct: “Torah hardcore.” In 2009, their debut album dealt with a multitude of topics from an Orthodox perspective, including celebrating Shabbos, learning Torah, and wanting the Moshiach (messiah). In 2011, their sophomore album addressed varying topics such as Torah, idolatry, and Abraham. Reflecting front man Yishai Romanoff’s religious leanings, there was one recurring topic that stood out in five of the album’s songs: Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a rabbi born in the 18th century.

With their newly released third album, Rock Rabeinu, Moshiach Oi! put the Rebbe Nachman theme front and center. “There is probably at least twice as much Na Nach on this album!” Romanoff told Jewish Music Underground earlier this month. “Maybe Michael Croland will be up for the task of counting how many times we say ‘Na Nach’ on the album.”

As much as I cracked up at that comment (it’s likely because of my quantitative analysis of Moshiach Oi! songs in the preface of my book, Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, and an article I wrote for Jewcy), I am not up for the task.

“Na Nach Nachma Nachman MeUman,” also known as the New Song or the Song of Redemption, can be heard in many songs on Rock Rabeinu. The title track discusses how rock (a pun on rock music and the Hebrew word for “only”) Rabeinu (Rebbe Nachman) matters. In “Rabeinu’s Army,” Romanoff sings that he’s “a soldier in Rabeinu’s Army.” “Country Petek” and “Smoke the Petek” deal with the petek, a note that Rebbe Nachman posthumously sent to one of his students, and the latter, quite amusingly, discusses “getting high” off of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. “Ain Yeush” and “No Despair” deal with Rebbe Nachman’s teaching of not having despair.

The song “Rabeinu Rebbe Nachman” best summarized why this focus is so important to Romanoff. The lyrics explain that Rebbe Nachman sent a letter with the Song of Redemption and that it’s “the key to set us all free.” Singing “Na Nach Nachma Nachman MeUman” is the “key to the redemption of all humanity,” which is why they “spread it all around.”

Moshiach Oi! made a concept album about Rebbe Nachman. Singing “Na Nach” in different catchy melodies and cadences was certainly one way to do so, but with songs like “Smoke the Petek,” they had varied approaches. It’s still rockin’ music that’s meant to praise Hashem and bring Moshiach, but it goes about those goals in a more targeted manner.

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

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.

Mini-Review: Eviatar Banai, “Leshonot Shel Esh” (Flames)

Eviatar Banai has never been the type to stay in one spot musically. A member of one of Israel’s most prolific showbiz families, he spent the late ’90s transitioning between piano-driven chamber pop and moody experimental electronica, all the while exuding era-appropriate angst, alienation, and self-loathing – think Ben Folds meets Radiohead with a dash of Sting. But when he joined his cousin, folk rocker Ehud Banai, in becoming Orthodox in the early 2000s, not only did his lyrics start to take on a more spiritual sheen, but his subsequent two albums evolved his sound into a more conventional alternative rock setup. This approach brought him back into the Israeli mainstream, but had some of his old fans wondering if a devoutly religious family man could ever match the intensity of the angry young indie rocker he had once been.

Fortunately, over the past decade, Banai has managed to find compromise, both spiritually and musically. His last album, 2013’s Yafa Kalevana (Pretty as the Moon), brought him into a dreamy indie pop realm and revived his trademark instinct to question absolutely everything, even his own religious commitment. Leshonot Shel Esh (Flames), which just released this week, takes that framework and doubles down on it.

With production handled by Tamir Muskat of Balkan Beat Box, there are some truly sublime songs here. Opener “Or BaTzel” (Light in the Shadow) is indie folk just aching with bittersweet longing. The title track is a tense build to a mizrahi firebomb of a chorus. “Chotzim Et HaRechov” (Crossing the Street) has some of Banai’s most chillingly good vocals on record. “Achshav” (Now) and “Omes Yeter” (Overload) do an excellent job of blending somberness with urgency. And “Tamid Lifnei HaGeshem” (Always Before the Rain) is just plain beautiful.


Not everything lands, of course: “Pergola” (It’s An English Word, Look It Up) is fun and clever in its mockery of Banai’s public image but a bit too self-aware to really click; “Adam Nizrak” (Man Was Thrown) suffers from serious verse/chorus disconnect; “Ata” (You), another Banai duet with glam rocker Aviv Geffen, has a nice melody but is almost caveman-like in its lyrical simplicity. Really, much of the tail end of the album seems out of place, as if the songs were meant for a different album and just happened to end up here.

But overall, Banai gets more right than wrong here, and what he gets right is so beautifully well-crafted as to completely overshadow the missteps.

Leshonot Shel Esh is available to stream on Bandcamp (below) and Spotify, and can be purchased on Amazon and iTunes. You can also follow Eviatar Banai on his website and on Facebook.