Music

The Klezmatics: Rise Up!

Matt Cibula

The Klezmatics

Rise Up!

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2003-05-13
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

I've said before that the Klezmatics were the greatest band in the United States of America, so it really means something to me that this album isn't a leap forward the way all the others have been. It's the first time they've done the easy thing instead of the hard thing, it's cautious in a world that demands bravery, it hits the same notes they've hit before, and it makes me kind of sad.

It's still one of the better records of the year, though. Because they're just that good.

These are some polished songs here, and the K's are the tightest and most finely honed band in the land. "Tepel" is a fun amazing sprint through a traditional Jewish tune, with bandmates' kids yelling on the chorus and some very avant-jazz touches here and there; "Di Gayster" ("Ghosts") is a sweet spooky original waltz by reedman Matt Derriau that leads in perfectly to the propulsive prayer of "Yo Riboyn Olam" ("God, Master of This Universe"); Loren Sklamberg proves once again that he has the most beautiful male voice in the world on the sly "Loshn-Koydesh" ("Holy Tongues"), where a religious scholar tells the story of how he teaches his male student a WHOLE lot more than the Torah, if you know what I mean.

There is not one single missed note or imperfection here. Frank London (who played the trumpet solo on "Goin' Back to Cali", just so you know) is flawless as a songwriter ("Kats un Moyz"), as an arranger (his amazing setting of the poem "Hevl Iz Havolim", or "Vanity Is Vanities", into a haunting modern classical Klezmer composition), and as a trumpeter. David Licht and Paul Morrissett are a fearsome rhythmic team, able to inject bouncy Yiddish tunes with reggae feel or martial strut or surreal touches.

But there's something missing.

Rise Up! is the first Klezmatics record without Alicia Svigals, the ace violinist and singer who has always been a huge part of the band. Since she's not referred to in either the promo materials or in the liner notes, I'm assuming it's because there's some (fun) acrimony there instead of some (boring) solo venture or some (tragic) other reasons. At first, you don't miss her, because replacement fiddler Lisa Gutkin does well for herself, even co-writing "Bulgars #2" and taking some great solos.

But it's not Gutkin's fault that she's the new kid in a group that has just lost one of its most important members. What they've done here is to fall back on some established formulae: the bouncy crazy instrumentals, while technically perfect, sound the same as the bouncy crazy instrumentals on earlier albums like Possessed and Rhythm & Jews. Sklamberg's "St. John's Nign" is great, builds slowly, hits all the right notes -- but it still feels like it's been done before.

Even the big centerpieces of the record hold back. It was a great idea to cover a workingman's anthem by political folksinger Shmerke Kaczerginsky (the Yiddish Woody Guthrie, he lived from 1908-1954), and "Barikadn" ("Barricades") is definitely a powerful piece of music. It even begins with an introduction by Kaczerginsky himself about how and why he wrote the song. But to rush in the instrumental track over his words before he's even done smacks of desperation, and the way they try to build momentum without a regular presence of either a drumbeat or a bassline was not wise. If you can't dance to a song about families banding together in a labor riot with guns and bricks, then when CAN you dance? It's an "interesting" arrangement, and Sklamberg does all kinds of funky things with his voice, but there's no meat to it, no heart in it. "Barikadn" was the first time I've felt they were phoning it in.

The other big production here is their cover of Holly Near's "I Ain't Afraid". This song is nice and inclusive and all, with its declarations about loving all religious traditions but not necessarily loving what people do to prove themselves in those traditions. And any Jewish group that is willing to criticize overzealous Jews (along with overzealous Christians and Muslims) is certainly taking a stand against some of their own target demographic, especially these days. Both the Yiddish/English and the English-only versions swell into great gospel-inflected things, and are very satisfying for a while.

But it doesn't stick with you for very long. As a statement, it's fine; as music, it's perfect and all that. But it's not as brave as the Klezmatics think it is. This is a time of extremism, all over the world, and all they have to tell us is "Hey, man, be nice"? That's just weak tea from where I sit. Safe, nice, warm, comforting . . . but weak nonetheless.

There is such a thing as a craft done too well. That's why the old Persian carpetmakers would always leave in one intentional flaw -- otherwise, they'd be trying for perfection, and only Allah could achieve that.

Well, I think the Klezmatics here created a perfectly nice piece of music, and I think it's fun and beautiful to listen to, and I'll listen to it a lot. (Still haven't figured out how Sklamberg can hold a note for what appears to be three hundred years on "Tepet". That shit is amazing.) But, unlike all their other records I've heard, it's safe. And that is disappointing to me.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image