The Klezmatics: Rise Up!

The Klezmatics
Rise Up!

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.