The Best of Mordechai Ben David – a Career Retrospective pt. 2

May 30, 2012 7 min read

(Part 1 of this series can be found here.)

Just One Shabbos: (*****) 1983: With the release of this album, MBD really hit his stride. First he came out with what would be his first mega-hit, Just One Shabbos; a song that is still sung in camps and Chabad Houses across the world. This record is another Suki and Ding creation, but on this one, they used MBD’s talent to its apex. A solid mix of songs – the fast and peppy Uvyom Hashabbos, the soft, gentle Proik Yas Onoch (#1), Sholom Aleichem (#1) (we sang this one often while I was growing up), the expressive Keil Adon, Kadsheynu – with its cute bass ending – and Ogil are all fine songs; Rachem (#2) would become a favorite; and even the Havdala Medley is sweet – even though Suki and Ding had just used the theme of A Gute Voch Yidden on their finale for Songs of Rosh Hashana. (That style of using well-known songs as orchestral themes would prove to be a long-standing Suki and Ding shtick, as they do that quite often – perhaps one might even say TOO often.) Lichtiger Shabbos was lifted from Broadway’s Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, and the result is solid – both lyrically and performance-wise. This is a real golden oldie.

Around the Year Vol. 1: (**1/2) 1984: After their first two themed albums on Shabbos and Yamim Noraim, Suki and Ding begin this general series (of three, with Avraham Fried taking the next two). I’m not crazy at all about this set, although both MBD and Fried do good work with what they were asked to do. My issue is that medleys don’t allow one to enter into the song properly; as soon as you get the song, we’re off to the next. I’ve heard it said in the name of R’ Elchanan Wasserman that in order to really “get” a song, you need to sing it 100 times; just like the Gemara says one must learn something 100 times. So in terms of art, or beauty, it’s not really here. But the song choices are good and the vocals are good. The arrangement could have used without the clap-track, which drills into your head, and generally consists of very minimal substance. The most artful of the entire album is the Ani Maamin Medley (#2), what with MBD’s extension of Someday, and the gorgeous Eicha medley, that has somehow disappeared from the CD and now is only found on Solid MBD. What’s up with that? Or am I just mis-remembering?

Hold On: (***) 1984: MBD enters politics with the title track of this album, with focus on Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, who was then sitting in Soviet prison as a refusenik. It’s not a great song, and probably the worst of his politically charged songs, but it isn’t awful. The album does have some great vocals; most notably on his awesome finale for Layehudim. In my opinion, you can say that MBD’s voice first shows its absolute tonal perfection here – that deep, bold, resonant sound is just amazing! Od Yishoma (#3) is a classic oldie, and Lakeil is a good song as well. The Yiddish song is given an English translated title (Dear Father), and while the words are expressive, as is MBD, a lazy background choir really messes with things. Ne’eman could have used without the intro, as the fast section is worthwhile on its own, despite the chaotic attempt at a jamming flute. Speaking of which, do I hear the Piamentas featured on this album? And talking of guests, a child Yeedle appears on Proik Yas Onoch (#2) – another weak song. Siman Tov (#1) concludes the album with a growling sax solo, which, along with that guitar and the flute, meant movement was happening in the Jewish music world. So the arrangements were heading the right direction, but they could have used a few rewrites here.

It was at about this time that MBD’s voice reached a level of perfection that was truly magnificent. The next half dozen or so albums would represent the zenith of his vocal talent, and while his hits have continued to come, nothing and no one can match the sweetness, sheer power and vast range of Mordechai Ben David in the late ‘80’s-early ‘90’s.

Let My People Go: (*****) 1985: Here’s a masterful album for you, and certainly one of MBD’s best. The unknown Daniel Freiberg arranged this stunning and daring record, and the opening four songs are unbelievable, with everything you want from an artist: joy, emotion, power, range, expression and creativity. Im Ain Ani (#1) is a fun and funky Latinesque piece. Ani Maamin (#3) is probably one of MBD’s top five songs of all-time, and the piano opener is perfection in an arrangement. Between that and the guitar solo, alongside a simply majestic vocal performance, it’s worth the cost of the album right there. But then you get to Let My People Go, another superb song performed and arranged with genius. While I personally disagree with the message behind the title track,* how can you not love this song? And then Be’ein Meilitz – that beautiful crooner with its soft violins and outstanding guitar work. Wow! Vetaher is a chirpy tune with exciting surprises throughout – I love the fuzzed flute and the violin and percussion solos. I’m So Proud is a second English song, an ‘80’s pop tune about the Baal Teshuva movement that Mordche rips out passionately, and Golus Pharoah is probably his all-time best Yiddish melody, with fantastic lyrics, unbelievable orchestration and literally flawless vocals. Another soft guitar solo worthy of mention delights the ear at the end of that song. The rest of the tunes (the beautiful Acheinu and the very 80’s, but good, Yehay Raava) match up well with the fillers on any album, and with all things considered – particularly considering Mordechai’s gevaldik vocals, and the fact that this album has arguably MBD’s best English, Yiddish and slow songs (!) – this is one of my all time faves. But to whence disappeared Freiberg? Chaval d’avdin! It would have been awesome to have more of his taste imparted to the Jewish music world.

*The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a big opponent of the solidarity marches for Russian Jewry, as in his opinion, it caused the Soviets to buckle down and make things worse for the Jews. More on that in this fascinating video interview with the former Vice President of the OU, Dr. David Luchins:

Jerusalem Not For Sale: (*****) 1986: More brilliance on his next record provided us with multiple hits, as well as MBD’s second uber-hit, albeit a stolen one – Yidden, formerly known as the German Genghis Khan. At this point, Mordechai’s voice is silky smooth and just pitch perfect, so the only thing missing here is… more music! The songs are just too short! 3 songs clock in at under 3 minutes! Despite that, Moshe Laufer works a stellar musical accompaniment. Rather than sticking with one band section leading the music across the entire album, most of the songs feature a large variety of solos and lead instrumentation. MBD’s self overdubs and creative harmonies are exquisite. All the songs are pretty and packed with vocal treasures performed with the delicate touch of a master at the height of his power, from the joyful Venisgov (#1), the solemn Hayom (#2) and somber Ezkero, and the classic hits Tov Lehodos and Yiboneh (#2). Ma Yedidus is a relaxed zemer that really expresses the words. It is the title track – with its heavy-handed political messaging – that is the weakest link of the record. Its orchestration is relegated to a simple keyboard… and nothing else. The lyrics are plenty passionate, but, as stated, pretty in-your-face; and despite the urgency of the messaging, might have been toned down a bit. Notwithstanding that detail, Not For Sale is an excellent record.

MBD and Friends: (****) 1987: Mona rejoins MBD, while adding many other friends (Dovid Werdyger, Avraham Fried, Dov Levine and others), for another fun-filled recording. The mens’ choir is as good as it gets on the classics Vahaviosim (a Toronto Boys Choir song), in which MBD pulls off some classy harmonies, and the gorgeous niggunim Ravrevin and Rachem (#3). Unity is an all-time English sing, with its clear concept and great performance. The arrangements are generally a bit too much expressive of the 80’s, but you can deal with it. I have no idea why MBD does not appear at all on the tracks Medley or the groovy Hora (love the bass/guitar/synth), both of which would have benefited by his additional sparkle. Note must be taken of MBD’s duets with his father on Vechulom Mekablim and with Fried on Rachem, for some truly memorable musical moments. It’s too bad we didn’t have more of that. Composition-wise, the opener (Kein Yivorech) needed a bit more, and when MBD finally appears on the song, the reverb is up too high. Also, the delightful ditty Horachamon had appeared on an earlier album (“You’re Never Alone”, sung there by an early group called The Chevra); I’m pretty sure the arrangement is the exact same. So the album has its flaws, but the classics remain classic.

Yerushalayim Our Home: (***) 1988: The Bostoner Rebbe’s Meheiroh and Chaim Banet’s classic Ko Omar are the songs to remember on another Suki and Ding collection (of mostly Yom Tov songs), but there are a number of others that should not be forgotten. For one, Kah Keili is absolutely lovely. It’s sung with tremendous charm and vigor, and how can you not absolutely love MBD’s ending of the song, with its richness and youth? And then you have songs like Nogil and Yossis (#2), which are average compositions at best, but MBD totally throws himself into them. The album’s two medleys are as good as medleys can be, with but two shocking twists – Suki and Ding’s use of a piece of “A Gutte Voch Yidden” for the THIRD time, and the use of Yom Tov Kaddish for the SECOND time! Total overkill, boys. We also have two English songs, Yerushalayim Our Home and Father Dear; the latter ripped off of an old non-Jewish song called Little Child that needed a child soloist (a mistake later corrected on The English Collection) and the former, a song that became pretty popular at camps, but whose concept had already been explored, albeit in Yiddish, by Yom Tov Ehrlich. Despite its positive aspects, this album does suffer a bit from under-arrangement, as unfortunately, the keyboards play front and central. Nevertheless, it has goodness in all the aforementioned songs, plus the oldie-but-goody Lemikdosheich (introduced with MBD’s Koh Ribon #1). But the story remains MBD’s unbelievable vocals – what a voice!

(Part one can be found here, part 3 here.)

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