While folk music is usually associated with summertime, nothing beats a winter evening with something warm in a mug, a fireplace, and a song everyone can learn right away. Here are six recent Jewish CDs that feature the good ol’ acoustic guitar.
Noah Budin: Metaphor
On his follow-up to “Hallelujah Land,” Budin extends many of the same themes and modes. While the first had gospel-style songs, this one has an actual gospel group, The Prayer Warriors, providing vocals on “Take Me Back.” And his themes of social conscience are pervasive this time. In the notes, Budin calls “Edge of the Ocean” a “social-justice-call-to-action” song, but it could also serve as a prod for anyone beginning a new endeavor. “Every Step a Prayer” recalls the march in Selma in which Reverend King walked with Rabbi Heschel. And “The Silent Son” reminds us that AIDS is still a reality in the new millennium. Other highlights include the Chanukah rock rave-up “Let It Burn” and the Himmelman-like title track. Another strong effort from this mighty, mighty baritone.
Julie Silver: Reunion
There are many who go by the title of “singer-songwriter,” but few who excel equally at both sides of that hyphen; Silver is one. As if to prove she can sing others’ works as well as her own, half of the tracks here are covers, the most famous being Carole King’s jazzy “Been to Canaan.” “Guide My Steps,” by Cantor Debra Winston, features Rabbi Joe Black. The rest are by her pianist, David Kates; the standout is his pastoral “Dodi Li.” Few of the songs are based on a liturgical or Torah phrases. Instead, Silver offers musical photographs of places, from gardens to synagogues, which she considers meaningful. She introduces us to “The Barefoot Sisters” who informed her that the Irish hillside she had wandered onto was sacred to St. Patrick. She explains why “Monica’s Chair” is so special to her, in the prettiest song about a favorite thing since Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “This Shirt.” And she takes us “Step by Step” down into the mikvah.
Sababa: It’s All Good
“Sababa” is Israeli slang meaning “cool, awesome.” And Sababa is a supergroup made of three talented Jewish performers who have each issued excellent solo releases. Steve Brodsky is the folksiest, Robbi Sherwin brings a county influence, and Scott Leader adds rock and jazz into the mix. Most of the songs are settings of short phrases from the Siddur or Torah. The entire album is accessible enough for whole families, especially the bouncy “Ani Tefilati,” the galloping “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” (a Leader original), and the harmony–drenched title track. The sounds range from gospel (“Hu Ya’asheh”), to reggae (“Hinei Mah Tov”)… to 1950’s pop (“Barcheinu”). Slower moments include the wordless nigun “For Healing,” and the closing medley, “Havdalah Sweet.” While the instrumentation is strong throughout, Sababa outdoes itself on the inventive arrangement of “Mi Chamocha,” which melds hand percussion, classical strings, and electric guitars.
The Levins: 36
Fans of the soundtrack for the movie “Once” will love this album. The title refers the Jewish concept that the world is allowed to exist based on the merits of 36 people. Which 36? No one knows, so: “Treat everyone you meet/ as if they were.” Mandolins, cellos, flutes, and instruments both foreign and ancient are brought into the service of these soft male-female harmonies. This is highly intelligent music, but too full of wonder to be intellectual. The themes of various Jewish texts are explored and pondered, sometimes leaving more questions than answers. Dreamy, haunting, smoky… this is music to be listened to while doing nothing else.
Beth Schafer: Raise It Up Bring It Down
Schafer revives the idea that an album should have two “sides,” each one a series of songs that interrelate thematically. This was sometimes done on an “LP,” which was a… oh, just Google it. Anyway, the first “side” here has songs about raising our level of experience to a higher plane, while the second set tries to call down Heavenly gifts to Earth. “Prayer for the Workin’ Man” debuted on Obama’s campaign trail, but ironically more relatable is her personal story, “Innocent Things,” about growing up, wanting to be a music star. And you wouldn’t think the world needed yet another cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but Schafer’s bluesy version finds new sadness here. “Side two” experiments with more world-music sounds, from the light reggae touch of “Im Ein Ani Li” and “Adama/One Love” to the samba of “Modim Anachnu Lach.” And “Open the Gates” cleverly merges the Ne’ilah service and “Pitchu Li” from Hallel, both of which involve “gate” metaphors. Concept albums can be tricky, but Schafer pulls it off.
Craig Taubman: Holy Ground
In between producing collections of others’ music, Taubman has found time to record a new album of original material. The empty Converses on the cover refer to Moses having to remove his shoes before the Burning Bush, as he was standing on holy ground. “Yismechu,” “L’cha Dodi” and “Alyenu” are all set to strong Latin rhythms… as is “V’Shamru,” whose surf guitars recall those of “Secret Agent Man.” Another touchstone might be John Denver, whose prayerful songs are simple but never simplistic; that spirit infuses Taubman’s “Love Your God,” and the commencement song “Holy Ground.” The rousing march-beat new “L’Chu N’ran’na,” which might be termed Sousa-rock, should be adopted by the “Friday Night Live” crowd. The closing track might have come from an acoustic version of one of Taubman’s “Lounge” CDs. But the standout track is “Ki Hem Chayenu,” which sheds all such trappings for a very affecting folk melody of healing.
Some of the biggest names in Jewish music got that way by producing album after album of outstanding songs, and the latest crop from “the biggies” is no exception. Exploring any such artist is worthwhile; listening to all of them might take until next summer. No rush.
Paul Wieder is public relations manager at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation.