Before Lev Tahor, before The Chevra, before 8th Day, there was Shalsheles. In 1999, the first Shlasheles album was a top seller, thanks in no small part to the compositions of its leader, Yitzchok Rosenthal. Shalsheles successfully bridged the gap between the old-school groups of Rabbi’s Sons, D’veykus, and Kol Achai to the 21st-century ensembles like Lev Tahor, Menucha, A.K.A. Pella, or Sheves Achim/Chaveirim. Since the release of the original Shalsheles, the group (Rosenthal, plus Boruch Aryeh, Chaim Block, and Simcha Sussman) has been very productive, putting out five mainstream albums, plus two more “Shalsheles Junior” albums featuring different sets of talented boys.
In addition, in 2001 Rosenthal released an album of his compositions entitled Rozo D’Shabbos, which featured an “all-star” ensemble cast, including Abie Rotenberg, Shlomo Simcha, Shloime Dachs, and Lev Tahor (among others), in addition to Shalsheles. Rosenthal’s newest album, Connections, despite coming under the Shalsheles byline, is more of a sequel album to Rozo D’Shabbos than the main line of Shalsheles albums (could this be why they didn’t name the album “Shalsheles 6″?).
Connections (produced by C.D. Eichler of A.K.A. Pella fame) includes three tracks featuring only the four Shalsheles vocalists. All nine other songs feature guest stars from all over the world who add original flavor to the tried-and-true Rosenthal compositions and Sussman vocal arrangements.
Track 1–“Sameach” (Style: Disco; To be played at: Weddings and concerts): Arranged by Aryeh Kunstler, “Sameach” is your classic Shalsheles opening track (think “Shalom” or “Mi HoIsh”), featuring all four vocalists equally. This song is not quite as drum-heavy as “Mi HoIsh”, but still features driving synth bass and some very modern effects (delay, AM radio, auto-tune?), which drive home the message that Rosenthal and Co. have not missed the changes in Jewish music the last couple of years.
Track 2–“An’im Zemirot”, feat. Ilai Avidani (Style: Disco/Rock; To be played at: Concerts): The most popular song from the original Shalsheles was, by far, Esa Einai, featuring Tzlil V’zemer phenom Yosef Wartelsky. Since then, Yitzchok Rosenthal has proven to be adept at drafting young talent, if you will, to showcase his songs (and even to launch careers in the industry, a la Edon Pinchot from Shalsheles Junior 2 and America’s Got Talent). I can’t say enough about Rosenthal’s most recent discovery, Ilai Avidani. He can’t be more than 11 years old, but he sounds like someone who was born in a studio. “An’im Zemirot” is a great song, the full orchestral arrangements by Yoely Dickman are killer, even the bridge and key change are done perfectly. In my opinion, it’s the best track on the album, and it’s not even close.
Track 3–“Henay Keil”, feat. Shlomo Katz (Style: Slow; To be played at: Motza’ei Shabbos Kumzitz): In this song, Shalsheles captures the Carlebach-style crowd by bringing in Shlomo Katz. This song can slide into the melaveh malka playlist of any band or kumzitz leader–it’s easy enough to learn, and has a nice 3/4 beat with arrangements by Dudi Kalish. Katz’s voice fits in perfectly, and everything is put together nicely by Nochi Krohn.
Track 4–“Somachti”, feat. Yishai Lapidot and Ari Goldwag (Style: Rock; To be played at: Concerts): Let’s do some math together, shall we? Oif Simchas + Shalsheles + Am Echad =_____? The answer, of course, is this song, which I predict becoming the part of the valedictory set at every Shalsheles concert for the foreseeable future. Yishai Lapidot and Ari Goldwag alternate taking the lead in the driving rock song, which has a “question-and-answer” arrangement that is perfect either for a duet or a four-person group which is letting one person take the lead at a time.
Track 5–“Ya’aleh” (Style: Slow; To be played at: Dinner, concerts): “Ya’aleh” was the first single released from this album, and it’s easy to see why. The simple piano arrangement, the easy lyrics (from ya’aleh v’yavo), and Shalsheles’ voices make for easy listening to a beautiful song. I don’t see “Ya’aleh” catching on at weddings and kumzitzes due to the slight similarity between the low and high parts of the song, but that’s less of a problem with the song than it is with Klal Yisroel in general.
Track 6–“Halelukah”, feat. Itzik Dadya (Style: Hora; To be played at: Weddings): This song is your classic sefardi-style hora, complete with an Arabic violin solo. Itzik Dadya belts out what is basically the only word to the song as you would expect. There’s not much of a low part to this song. I would expect this song to be featured as a transition between two other horas in a second-dance set at a wedding.
Track 7–“Lemaan Achai”, feat. The Maccabeats (Style: Slow; To be played at: Pretty much anywhere): Keeping on the Rozo D’Shabbos theme, remember how the last track of that album featured Lev Tahor, an a capella group whom no one had heard with real music to that point? Enter the legendary YU Maccabeats. “Lemaan Achai” is a very nice ballad which showcases the voices of all of the singers in the track, and proves, once again, if you can sing without music, you’ll probably be pretty good once the instruments show up.
Track 8–“Niggun Shalsheles”, feat. Dudi Kalish and the Yedidim Choir (Style: Techno/Disco; To be played at: Weddings?): Lyrics? We don’t need no stinkin’ lyrics! Another Dudi Kalish arrangement, this is yet another catchy song without much of a high part, which kind of limits its accessibility to the public.
Track 9–“Aishes Chayil”, feat. Shloime Gertner (Style: Slow; To be played at: Weddings): This track is Yitzchok Rosenthal’s blatant attempt to get another song into the chuppah/wedding dinner music rotation (I kid, I kid). Seriously, though, “Aishes Chayil” is a great addition to the roster, and Shloime Gertner adds his unique flavor as the lead vocal.
Track 10–“Yesimcha”, (Style: Slow; Already being played at: Pretty much everywhere): This song was originally released by Yaakov Shwekey last year on his album Cry No More. This time it appears with new arrangements courtesy of Aryeh Kunstler, and I may like it better in this iteration than I did Shwekey’s rendition.
Track 11–“Henay Ma Tov”, feat. A.K.A. Pella (Style: Electronic; To be played at: Wherever people play electronic music?): Speaking of a capella groups singing to real music, I’m sure C.D. Eichler was thrilled at the chance to not have to “play” all of the “instruments” himself when he signed on to produce this album. “Henay Ma Tov” is a fun song with a great piano arrangement behind the techno-pop beat, I just don’t know who will ever sing it. I do know, however, that it is totally assur to listen to this song during sefirah ;-).
Track 12–“Lemaan (A Capella)”, feat. The Maccabeats (Style: A Capella; to be played at: A sefirah kumzitz, of course!): This song is an a capella version of Track 7, and is definitely finding a way into my sefirah/3 Weeks playlist.
In summary, if you liked any of the past Shalsheles albums, you will enjoy Connections. Yitzchok Rosenthal and C.D. Eichler have brought in the extra voices necessary to make sure that this album was different, special, and, most importantly, worth your time and money. Overall, a job very well done.