Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Klezmatics

  • Rhythm and Jews [Flying Fish, 1993] B+
  • Jews With Horns [Xenophile, 1995] A-
  • Possessed [Xenophile, 1997] A-
  • Rise Up!/Shteyt Oyf! [Rounder, 2003] A-
  • Brother Moses Smote the Water [Piranha, 2004] **
  • Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie [JMG, 2006] A
  • Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukah [JMG, 2006] A
  • Live at Town Hall [Klezmatics Disc, 2011] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Rhythm and Jews [Flying Fish, 1993]
Although neither band is especially pure, and a good thing too, what distinguishes their shtick from that of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, who I enjoy from a respectful distance, is that it honors the shtetl rather than the borscht belt. Their sense of drama precedes vaudeville and, more significantly, musical comedy. B+

Jews With Horns [Xenophile, 1995]
If I was a maven, maybe the hodgepodge of influences would grate, but more likely they'd just delight more. Conceptually, the pleasure here is how subtly a free and easy universalism animates a style that's often provincial on purpose and sometimes culture-bound in spite of itself. And musically, it's how unassumingly these folks show off their endless chops. That goes even for the wonderful singer Lorin Sklamberg, who never betrays the slightest emotional or physical strain even though he's as transcendent a tenor as today's semipop can offer--and for my second favorite, violinist Alicia Svigals, and for avant-clarinetist David Krakauer, and Miles-inflected Frank London, and loose-limbed David Licht, and no doubt bassist-vocalist Paul Morrissett too. This is a wedding music for listeners of every sexual persuasion. Its object is joy. Its miracle is that they come by the joy honestly. A-

Possessed [Xenophile, 1997]
Modern klezmer obviously celebrates Jewish roots and identity--often mixed in with Jewish eclecticism, usually with Jewish secularism, occasionally with Jewish avant-gardism, and always with Jewish celebration itself. The Klezmatics assume all that and then intensify the Jewishness as they transcend and/or escape it. Lorin Sklamberg's ethereal yet sensual tenor epitomizes sacramental seriousness while suggesting the slippery skepticism of all traveling musicians, and the rest of the Klezmatics make congruent artistic choices--as in the "Reefer Song" Frank London composed with Yiddish lyrics by Michael Wax, or the bewitchingly traditional melody Alicia Svigals provided lyricist Tony Kushner's bereftly postmodern "An Undoing World." Anchored and turned inside out by that song, the first half of this record reaches Jewish heaven--where the undone are restored, where the Messiah gathers the gays and blacks and reefer-smokers to his bosom, where the just feast on a "fabulous and tasty wild ox" called the Shor-a-bor. This is a vision band with a genre, not a genre band with a vision. And both are open to all. A-

Rise Up!/Shteyt Oyf! [Rounder, 2003]
Their first true album in six years would have arrived in 2002 if the release date had survived whatever squabbles delayed it. But with only violinist Alicia Svigals gone her own way, blame the mood shift on history rather than personality--lots of slow ones to go with lots of grief. Leaning on the mournful Eastern European modalities the shtetl assimilated long ago--check especially the Matt Darriau threnody and Frank London prayer--the Klezmatics conjure an album as soaked in 9/11 as The Rising, whose similar title is no coincidence. But this doesn't mean they jettison the jazz passages and upful wedding tunes. The marriage of heaven and hell, Blake called it. A-

Brother Moses Smote the Water [Piranha, 2004]
Like the Lord God Jahweh, gospel-klezmer collaboration can be awesome or awful ("Elijah Rock," "Didn't It Rain"). **

Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie [JMG, 2006]
What a treat to have Lorin Sklamberg singing in English, with the gentleness and precision non-Yiddish speakers sense in him elaborated and specified by the dozen Guthrie lyrics Sklamberg and his cohort turn into music. He's cheery for the neighborhood pep rally, transported for the mystic prophecy, tenderly humorous for the lullaby, delicately feminine for the tale of two rings, a wedding singer when the music gets Balkan (or is that Middle Eastern?), a Marxist simp with a Scotch-Irish melody dreaming of roads paved with the "finest of plastics." One of the age's signal voices, finally available on terms an Al Green fan can understand. A

Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukah [JMG, 2006]
Lorin Sklamberg and his wondrous band found only eight Hanukkah lyrics by the Scotch-Irish Okie, who got interested in the subject while raising a family with his Jewish wife, and most of them were in Guthrie's silliest kiddie style: "Honeyky Hanuka" is a typical title, "Dinga lingle lingle, I ring your bell" a resonant line. And from this they create as upful a holiday album as I can recall. Sklamberg's tenor is a treasure of American music, adding wit and warmth to predominantly Yiddish-style melodies as bright as any Guthrie ever stole or created. They spritz up "Happy Joyous Hanuka" with hoedown fiddle, gospel bass and country licks, and later on leave room for, why not, Jew's harp. And to get to 12 tracks, they add four instrumentals. Can't pin down the R&B novelty Frank London raided for "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flop." Maybe we'll figure it out at Christmas dinner. A

Live at Town Hall [Klezmatics Disc, 2011]
Recorded in 2006, this concert program performs roughly the same function as Piranha's 2008 cherrypick Tuml = Lebn. But personally, I'd rather hear these New Yorkers trying out their English than honoring tradition on a German best-of boasting "7 songs in Yiddish, 1 song in Yiddish/English + 8 instrumentals." Thus I gravitated to the four Woody Guthries and one Holly Near on the second disc, wished Susan McKeown would join the band already, welcomed cameo-ready Joshua Nelson, and was perfectly fine when half the Tuml = Lebn songs showed up. And then in a contemplative mood I sat still and listened to the first disc's 12-minute, quarter Yiddish, quarter English, half instrumental "Dybbuk Suite." Understood every note, I swear. A-

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