So this is it. The “King of Jewish Music” and his last album – Kissufim. I don’t think any of us expected it to be like this – not the singer of Moshiach, Maaminim and Just One Shabbos! – but in the end, it’s up to the artist to go where he wants. And in this case, R’ Mordechai chose to end his career with an austere, laid back, heimishe product rather than a hit-heavy, modern, pop album.
I think the name is well chosen. Some of MBD’s all-time greatest moments are on his slower, most hartzig numbers. The title of the album shows where he has been at emotionally, and what he was always trying to drive spiritually. In interviews, he has said that this album was one that he wanted to put out for a while, but for the life of me, I don’t understand exactly what he was pointing at. This album is very similar to Kumzits, albeit with a more Heimishe feel. It also has a few modern pop tunes tossed in, seemingly for the younger crowd. It also has niggunim, but he’s produced many albums with niggunim. As for the heimishe tunes; well, he’s had dozens of heimeishe tunes on previous albums as well. Maybe someone can enlighten me on what is so utterly unique about this that he saved it for last.
In any case, it’s a nice album, even if the end product is a bit surprising. Here we go, song by song:
Shulem Aleichem: The barebones arrangement here, with a guitar accompanied by accordion alongside men’s and boys’ choirs, reminds me of the ancient London School of Jewish Song album (yeah, the one with Yekum Purkan on it). That itself was a shock. But this very hemishe tune is one with a strongly Galicianer Chassidic feel, and as a result, I’m sure you’ll hear quite it a bit Friday nights in Boro Park and Williamsburg. I’m surprised he opened the album with this song –a completely atypical beginning for a modern album.
Menichu Vesimchu: The arrangements on this number echoes the first, with the percussion providing shades of Veshulmu, from Efshar Letaken. This tune is also one that will probably appeal to Zemiros singers – simple, elegant and hartzig. A bit more arrangement would have been nice – maybe some harder piano would have given it a bit more definition. As for vocals, Mordche goes Shlomo-like with the humming harmonies towards the end of the song, adding to the appeal. However, as the next song stays slow, I think they should have really picked up the pace towards the end.
Al Kein Tzion: The intro to the song is jolting, and doesn’t really speak to me, but the song itself is very beautiful. The child soloist does solid work, as does the Shira Choir with the backup vocals. The arrangements have a bit more oomph than the previous two songs, with the presence of a violin and piano. And MBD does some of his patented emotional harmonies. But the flow of the album just hasn’t quite established itself yet. For that, we’re just going to have to wait for the next song, one of the guaranteed hits on the album.
Shomrei: In absolute contrast to the three earlier tunes, this song has a funky musical and vocal intro. The electric guitar and solid beat energize you, and MBD’s voice sounds as close to his prime as it has in a while. The colorful solo smack in the middle gives it an additional boost; along with some awesome harmonics all the way through. And I love the ending. But let’s face it – it seems that this song was a compromise for the younger set. That being said, it’s probably going to be everyone’s favorite song of the album.
Hazkiri: It seems that with each song, they’ve added something to the basic guitar-led arrangements. Here, we have a mandolin leading the way, on another slow piece. You can easily see MBD shuckeling his way through this nigun, written by the holy R’ Yisrael of Ruzhin, and he sings it with gusto, as befits a nigun of this stature.
Talmidei HaTzemach Tzedek: Here’s where we get into my favorite section of the album, but maybe I’m just biased, given that the next three songs of Chabad niggunim. This gorgeous and rare nigun is usually sung slowly, but MBD and the boys put on a good show with a faster pace. Here’s an example of a song matching the arrangement exceedingly well, especially a nigun – where the intended focus of the tune in the first place was on the vocals. Still, the ending comes a bit too quickly for me, leaving me pining for a little more.
Anim Zemiros: The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught this gentle nigun to Chassidim himself, on a Simchas Torah evening back in the 60’s. It has a rather lengthy back-story, which is something for a different time. The crux of the story is that as a heavenly reward for an extraordinary act of kindness, a Jew spent an entire Yom Kippur immersed in this tune – meriting a taste of Gan Eden while still in this world. Put in the very able hands of Mordechai ben David and the Shira Choir, alongside a very elegant arrangement, this song is performed to virtual musical perfection.
Chabad Tantz: While Avraham Fried had performed this tune on Hupp Cossack, here it has much more power. It’s sung here as fast as it typically is in shuls, where it is often sung to the words of Lecha Dodi. This also is one of the few songs on the album that has merited a more expanded arrangement – done stylishly and thoughtfully. Great job.
Hashivaini: Here we go right back – in style and in form – to Hazkiri. This nigun was composed by R’ Pinchas Friedman of Belz – presumably an einikel of the Ruzhiner. Anyone know if I’m correct on that? Whatever the case, the similarity of the nigunim and arrangement takes away from the solid performance. Oh well.
Nichsefo: A pop piece that could have used a few rewrites. The tune is overly simplistic, and the words don’t really fit the message. Hey, if you were going through the experience of klos hanefesh, where your soul is trying to break free of your body to cleave to Hashem, would you be singing this? But vocally, MBD does his best, and as always, succeeds to strengthen one of his weaker ones.
Kissifim: Oht azoy! MBD’s true final musical message, (albeit via Lipa’s verbal and poetic skills) with this pretty, poignant and sensible Yiddish song about our desire to serve Hashem despite the struggles. I only wish he had put out an English song to match.
Simchas Torah Medley: Back we go to the classic Jewish pop arrangement style of the Chabad Tantz. Nice choice of tunes for this happy-go-lucky medley. MBD, however makes only rare appearances on this track – and no solos.
Werdyger Medley: Another Ani Maamin for MBD?! I’d have nixed that first choice for this medley. In any case, the child soloist bends the notes a few times too many, in both this and the next song – Yiboneh. This whole medley would have fit nicely on an album in the 80’s, but it’s only a feeble match for this album.
Ashreini: And finally, a solid, classy number for MBD’s finale. This song retains the guitar-centric accompaniment of the entire album, but with much more snazz than the rest of the album. Extra-solid percussion lift it above for a totally enjoyable and highly catchy hit.
Tachlis: All in all, while Kissufim is certainly not MBD’s best album,* it’s still a beautiful album. The Shira Choir does an excellent job, with graceful harmonies that accent MBD’s voice very well. I would have played with the order of songs a bit, to give it a bit better flow. An additional critique is in terms of his stage time versus the Shira Choir. I understand that they got top billing alongside him, but the fact remains that this is an MBD album! I think we would have liked to hear a little more Mordche. If you loved Kumzits, chances are that you’ll love Kissufim as well. The King deserves your patronage: grab your copy of his final album today!
*We’ll discuss MBD’s best album in an upcoming post, G-d willing. I still need to buy a few more of his albums before I write it.