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.

Zeke Finn Releases Debut EP

Being long removed from peak pop culture influence hasn’t stopped Matisyahu from continuing to impact the JM scene through a number of proteges. The latest of these is Ithaca-based indie rapper Zeke Finn, whose self-titled debut EP, produced by Stu Brooks, comes out today.

While Finn draws from a lot of the same wells as his mentor – hip-hop, reggae, alternative, jam – he has something a bit darker and weirder going on. Whereas Matis made his name as a friendly role model for the troubled youth, Zeke Finn IS that troubled youth, and he has no problem putting his very human flaws and confusion front and center, whether or not they’re going to get solved. Musically, his website says he grew up hearing hippie jam bands at GrassRoots Festival, and there’s very much a trippiness to his dream-pop-inspired beats that makes a delicious counterpoint to the confessional lyrics.

You can check out his video for “Plight”, featuring the Beardless One himself, below:

Double Digits: 10 Moshiach Oi! Shows

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

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!

Avigdor Gavish debuts with “Yom Chadash” album

Israeli singer-songwriter Avigdor Gavish has just released his debut album, Yom Chadash (New Day). Recorded with bassist/producer Yehu Yaron at Pluto Studios in Tel Aviv, the album explores primal Jewish concepts of creation, exile, and seeking answers over a hypnotic jazz/soul blend. You can check it out on Bandcamp below:

Gangsta Rabbi Battles Cancer, Wonders “Has the G-d of Israel written a scorching rocker for me to play in Heaven—but not until I get there?”

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

In January, Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman released The King of Jewish Punk, his 30th album (68th if you count his 38 prior cassette recordings). He worked on it while battling cancer, and it came out while he was in a medically induced coma. Now he’s plugging away at his 31st album.

The Gangsta Rabbi has ended his musical career and revived it, and he has used his music as a forum to discuss his struggles with cancer. In this July 2016 interview, he explained where he’s at with his musical career and his health.

On multiple occasions, you’ve said that you were playing your last show and releasing your last album, only to come back for more. What inspires you to keep going?

In 2011, for the “My Last Rock Show” tour, it was a good time for me to go. I barely got any reviews for the companion CD, My Magic Last Days (2012), and needed one [more] big tour to finish it up. The day after I opened for the Misfits, I went on my 1st round of chemotherapy. It didn’t work and I started downward in 2013. I signed in at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and they determined I had progressed to early myelofibrosis. I went on my 2nd round [of chemotherapy]. I went every week for 6 months during 2013–2014, most of the time too sick to record.

I needed to tell this story, and by the end of 2014, I released Cancer Ward. During the recording of Cancer Ward, I was hospitalized 11 times and received 36 pints of transfused blood. As 2015 came, the disease progression slowed down and I became extremely prolific on the musical side, releasing the 4-part, 77-song monster, Return of the Jewish Pirate #1-4. And then the partially original Blast-O-Rama and Terminator V617F… then the Dementia Series…

You just put out the song “Where the Hell’s My Nurse?” (from the album Down with a Bang #29), and in recent years, you’ve released albums titled Cancer Ward and My Magic Last Days. Do you find that making music about your struggles with cancer is cathartic? 

For me, the cancer is not a crisis. I feel I’ve been again chosen by G-d, this time to let me know that my time will be limited and there are great things to follow. He, in dreams, brings me to places where my parents (both deceased) and my puppies (Buttons, Midnite, and Mori) are. It could be at a breezy afternoon baseball game, an amusement park, a ghetto I lived in—it’s all wonderful.

But the most wonderful one happened on 5/11/2016. I was going into severe leukemic crisis for days by then. At the hospital that night, my HgB [hemoglobin] was 3.6 (normal is between 13 and 16). My cancer doctors told me under 4.0 is pretty certain death. I lay down, and I feel a hand closing my eyes. Then I suddenly appear on a pristine, white stage—playing every instrument I ever knew, all at the same time, but not as a freak, as a slight built older man with really good hair! I’m up there playing alone. The crowd is very noisy, but their faces are all hidden. Then I feel the same hand opening up my eyes. Awake, I stumbled to my recording board and tried to record what I just did. In one minute, it was gone from my memory. Has the G-d of Israel written a scorching rocker for me to play in Heaven—but not until I get there?

I use the lyrics of these albums, from My Magic Last Days to Down with a Bang #29, to proclaim the miracles I get blessed with each day. And I provide detailed references to each stage of suffering so no one forgets me too soon.

The new one, “Where the Hell’s My Nurse?,” is a protest song against the sponsor of my chemo-therapy trial. I was pretty much told it won’t help me, nothing works, but maybe I may give hope to others. … I plan to leave this study soon and suspend any and all treatment of myeloproliferative leukemia.

You’ve always drawn on many musical styles. In 2016, you released albums covering The Who’s Quadrophenia and Tommy and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. Were your Jewish and punk approaches part of the mix even in these projects? 

This trilogy was of course Jewish punk records because it was me who did it. I wrote the official Jewish Punk riff in 2003, and it appears a lot in my records. I’m doing a 2-octave D-harmonic scale, tremolo picking the bass with my left index [finger] through distorted power chords. It is best represented at the end of the “Bombshelter” medley on Jewish Riot Oy! Oy! Oy! Since neither Pete Townshend [of The Who] nor Ian Anderson [of Jethro Tull] favored this riff, I used their chords and melodies as I had to.

In the years to come, what do you want people to remember about The Gangsta Rabbi? 

That my career was totally successful, although in 15 years I have but 120,000 sales, for revenue of less than $5,000.00. I was a greater than minimum footnote in the history of rock, thanks to bipolar disorder, leukemia, and great journalists such as Michael Croland and the like. Your book is fantastic.

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 the Gangsta Rabbi and other Jewish punk artists!

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