(Pardon the pun.)
Finally – a collection of modern adaptations for the classic music of Moshe Yess! I’ve been waiting eagerly for this album for a long time – in fact, full disclosure here, I had been involved with some initial discussions about the concept after R’ Moshe passed, but I was not ultimately involved with the project. So this review is coming from a place deep within my musical heart.
I know I’m not the only person who grew up listening to Megama, so I’m sure there will some very emotional responses to this album. The producers were playing with a very fine line – on one hand, respect the material; on the other hand, update it. I saw that balance firsthand a few weeks ago when I introduced my youngest sisters-in-law, diehard 8th Day fans and young teens, to the original “Beggar Woman”. They listened to it, shrugged, and said, “We like the 8th Day version better.” They couldn’t really comprehend the minimalist folk style that Megama pulled off so brilliantly. So Gershon Veroba and Yerachmiel Ziegler took up the challenge, and I believe they did a great job on that tightrope walk; even though the old Megama fans will all find what to kvetch about. Look – that’s just the way it goes with something as beloved and classic as those two simple albums…
Our review of each of the 30 (!) songs has been split in two – one a perspective on the song as it stands alone, and one in italics on the song as it compares, in my opinion, with the original, besides for those few songs I have never heard in the original.
G-d is Alive and Well in Jerusalem: (*****) Sung by Moshe Hecht, who puts his all into it. Stylistically, they stick to a pop ballad with the groove laid over a piano that intensifies over the song as Veroba’s stellar backup vocals kick in. The bridge is a great addition, and Moshe’s growling towards the end give the chorus a bit of oomph. An excellent intro to the album, since it really bridges the new with the old.
Hecht plays with the tune a bit, but keeps the edge – except in that awesome spot where Yess rips out that passionate “NObody sees in!” For old time’s sake, and for artistic purposes, that should have been kept in.
David Cohen’s Bar Mitzvah: (****) Abie Rotenberg is the perfect match for this song, a melancholic depiction of America’s Jewish youth. As he sings through the song, you can clearly hear how Yess influenced Rotenberg’s Journeys. The arrangement is light and easy – the bass, piano and percussion set the mood perfectly. The only thing missing is the end could have used a minute or two of the strings and piano reflectively jamming off each other, playing on the emotion a bit longer.
Yess’ guitar is particularly melodic on the original, and they did an excellent job bringing that feeling into the updated version. In this song, they hit it spot on – better than the original.
Freeway: (****) One of Yess’ most creative pieces (you have to watch this video, especially with its brilliant intro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5bx54QFoo4), this is the only song that I was mightily disappointed in, and that despite Veroba’s emphatic and spirited performance. This song is pure blues, man! I’d have given the job in a blink to brilliant blues guitarist Lazer Lloyd, and let him wrestle with it. (He has his own Highway song, that you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGhnlhc3gEE – skip to 6:23.)
All that being said, we can still take their version at face value – the vocals are the bit to enjoy. I didn’t think it needed the sax at all – just guitar. And there’s a nice guitar solo in the back of the mix that really gets lost and should have been brought to the top. Look – it’s a great song, and I only wish the greatness was felt here – what you do have, though, is a good song, easy to listen to… But with all that potential! Man.
Hmmm. I guess I already filled this space above.
Angel Song: (***) Zevi Kaufman sings in a staccato soprano that is a bit distracting, but he pulls it off nonetheless. The message, of course, is timeless; but the arrangement could have used a bit more something to bring it to the next level – I like the piano groove, which matches the original blues rhythm, but perhaps a riff mid-song would have helped.
Look, Kaufman couldn’t get close to matching Yess’ vocal prowess. So with no singular moment in the arrangement department, nothing to compare here.
Dollar Bill: (***) Here we find Yess at the apex of his descriptive power. My first reaction was this brilliant song needed to be slowed down – but then I remembered that I had been surprised by the speed of the original. In any case, a frolicking banjo kicks around alongside the powerful lyrics on this visceral song about materialism. I’m cool with everything in the arrangements here, besides the percussion, which should have been far more subtle than it is. Vocally speaking, Nochi Krohn has a fine voice, but he’s missing a few elemental pieces of the song – including, most importantly, a pregnant pause at “You can see… The teardrops on the floor.” As I was listening to it, I thought, MBD would have been perfect.
Fans of the original (including myself) are going to be disappointed in this one – Moshe’s guitar had that haunting feel that is completely missing here; and the Duo’s authoritative vocals drew every ounce out of this extraordinary song. No bones about it – the original remains a towering piece of art.
As a Jew: (*****) Great choice for this emphatic song in Benny Friedman! Benny’s sunny disposition comes right out, and he kicks it out with relish. The arrangement is elegant – guitar-led through the beginning, until that banjo and piano slide in smoothly, with a low key banjo solo halfway through. Here, the drums stayed right on track, fitting in perfectly. And Benny’s little humming inflections fore and aft give it that extra character.
I thought they did an excellent job on this one – Benny puts out all the energy it needs!
Sukkos in Jerusalem: (*****) A criminally underappreciated song will be so no more, after this version by SoulFarm. C. Lanzbom and the boys are the first that truly fit the Americana style of Megama on this album. And they give the melody complete respect, if toning out the very religious nature of some of the lyrics. (Torah study lets a bit of light in/It’s the place he’ll find his Yiddishkeit in becomes Love and faith lets a bit of light in/It’s the life we find that’s so exciting. Meh.) Lanzbom’s guitar is sweet gold alongside the rest of the band, and the harmonics are gentle, but expressive. All that, and some of Noah Solomon’s patented scatting at the end of the song make this a truly beautiful piece.
The original had that incredible pizzicato plinking it’s way through, but you can’t complain with the extraordinary job they’ve done here musically. They should have left the lyrics alone, though.
The Wagoneer: (***) A much lighter tone for this piece, both compositionally as well as verbally. In this case, klezmer hits the old west with a story about a rabbi and his coachman. (I don’t remember if I know the story from an actual occurrence, or from a folk tale, but the message is cute, and the perfect musician for a piece like that would be Andy Statman, and here he appears – though further back on the mix than I would have liked. Dovid Negin sings it admirably, with even a slight Southern lilt.
Treat Her Kind: (****) Gershon Veroba teams up with Shlomo Katz for a bit of a saccharine take on spousal relationships. Perfect arrangement on the sweet song, one that I had always found a bit too schmaltzy for my liking. But between the graceful guitar and strings and the excellent pairing of these two talents, they squeezed everything there was to get out of it – far more than I’d have expected.
Far better than the original – a wonderful arrangement, keeping the gentle viola work. And the background humming (and light banter) make good expression, keeping it honest and smooth.
Hinei: (****) “Yossi Green, where are ya?” This, the only Hebrew song to appear on a Megama record, is a funky jazzy piece with plenty of room for expression. And Yossi Green comes aboard to give it exactly that, with a jazz piano running things up front and a barber shop duo running the backings. Fun scatting by Veroba give good color to emphasize the beautiful guitar work. Kick back and sip your cocktail slowly as you indulge in this light and fun ditty.
Megama kept things to a minimum, but they didn’t here. That’s one reason for this song being double the length of the original. So I’m willing to call it even on this one – each of the versions has their particular advantage over the other.
Up to Jerusalem: (*****) Veroba had released this quite a while ago as a single, and it had been a favorite of mine since then. I was happy to see he let it go as is, and didn’t play with it any, as it is a great representation of another of Megama’s little-known but awesome artistic talent. Another ultra-descriptive piece that conjures a full color picture in your head. Veroba put everything into this particular track – from the perfectly plucked guitar riffs, to the Hammond organ rolling through, to the finely placed percussion. And did I mention Veroba’s splendid vocal work?
The original guitar/viola really takes you in, doesn’t it? But someone had to make a modern adaptation, and I think Veroba did as good as can be expected, and I find plenty to enjoy in the new version, which has its own, stand-alone power.
When the Messiah Comes: (****) You can notice that Diaspora guitar fire up immediately, can’t you? And that other band leader of the original BT bands joins us with his distinct classic rock sound. Avraham Rosenblum’s voice is as strong as ever, and his guitar is as well. Rosenblum picks a fiery classic rock solo, and he and Veroba sound great together. Thumbs up!
I hate verbal song intros, especially cheesy ones. So that alone picks this version over the original. But I think Avraham Rosenblum did an excellent job representing that era and this with his cover here. Much better than the original.
Beggar Woman: (****) I didn’t expect this song to be here, as 8th Day had already published their version of this touching piece. But Marc Levine lends his voice and guitar to bring to life his version, which keeps a step closer to the original than the Marcus brothers. The additions are the cooing backing vocals and the sublime (but seldom) slide guitar. Beautiful work.
Another one that is favorably comparable to the original, but with a tasteful modern twist.
Coming Home: (****) A piece that had been released in anticipation of this project, this is Aryeh Kunstler’s tribute to the artistry of Megama. Kunstler’s vocals are honest, but it’s his guitar skills that set him apart, and he takes this simple song and elevates it with a breezy but heartfelt axe-work. The rock setting is a nice fit for the tune, and he works it well.
And again, I like this version better than the source. The original didn’t have any of the unique Megama twists that really give it its uniqueness.
My Zaidy: (***) The grand-daddy of Megama songs. (Or was that a stretch?) Shlomo Katz was given the zechus of taking this song to the next generation, and while his vocals are sweet – but missing Moshe’s raw angst – I don’t care for the arrangements. The piano is distracting, and it seems as if everyone is off a beat sometimes. We’ve said it before: Sometimes, less is more, and this song proves it difficult to beat the simplicity and straightforward, plaintive pain of the original.
Uh uh. But I think we all knew that no matter who took this song, they were gonna lose out. Still, my take is they could have worked this song a bit more…
If this hasn’t intrigued you enough to buy the originals, I don’t know what will. You can get them at the Moshe Yess Tribute site, http://mosheyess.ca. And whether or not you pine for that classic scratchy sound of vinyl, you can’t go wrong with this beautiful album!
Our review on Disc 2 can be found here.