Here is both an in depth, technical review of Taamu, and also a great 30 minute audio interview conducted by Mendel.
Benny Friedman – Taamu: a dissection by Mendel “the Sheichet”
I decided to alter my approach by not reading the insert until after this review as I think that offers more objectivity. That means I have no idea who wrote these songs, who arranged them, who engineered them – I know nothing but what my ears tell me. I’m allowing the work to speak for itself with out the bias of information. As always, I’ll be focusing on many of the technical aspects that make up the figurative individual notes of the Sonata that is the album as a whole. Before I continue, I would like to remind the reader of the technical nature of this review. The negative comments I include should be taken in stride with the songs and album as a whole.
I’m getting the feeling that many people were involved in this album because the different songs are not consistent with each other in various aspects. One gets the feeling that very different angles were taken from song to song on everything from arrangements to choirs to mixing. One of the few common denominators here seems to be that Avi Singolda is obviously playing on most of the songs, there’s no mistaking that guitar playing. The involvement of varied talent is not necessarily a bad thing. Quite the opposite, it can help achieve an album that still fells fresh and fun at the 8th song and beyond. On the flip side though, it makes it much more difficult to keep the thread of consistency going through the album to keep it feeling like it belongs together. I thus have to tip my hat to the brilliant individual who did the mastering, because he (or she) really did a spectacular job in bringing all the ends together. While mastering is always important to an album, it is never more so than in those albums where different teams were used for different songs. The volume level was also where it should be as opposed to most Jewish music albums that for some inexplicable reason are always quieter than their contemporary counterparts. You truly are the “master” ;-)
(p.s. – I’m gonna look at the insert when I’m done to find out who you are so I can send you a bill for my windshield that blew out of my car when I put Taamu in my CD player with the regular volume setting for Jewish music)
Benny’s voice is surprizingly well formed for a debut artist. His projection and intonation are on target and he hits the notes from on top as opposed to reaching at the bottom of the note as is generally common with newer artists. His polished performance is a big credit to his vocal coach. At the same time he doesn’t lose feeling for technique as sometimes happens with those who have very technical training. I also noticed throughout the album that while Benny has an obviously admirable vocal range, he doesn’t use it constantly, but rather wisely chooses to remain mostly towards the middle of his range and use the highs and lows just as garnish. Among other things, this makes the songs more accessible because people can actually sing the songs fairly easily. As for his voice itself, very similar to his uncle but with some serious richness and bottom end added. Need I say more?
The production team, headed up by the brilliant Avi Newmark (my apologies to the others involved for not mentioning you, but as I said before I have not read the insert yet so I don’t know who all of you are, nor what your contributions were), did a great job of letting Benny be the geshmake person that he is and allowing that to be expressed in the album. I noticed this before about Avi Newmark, for example with the recent production of Shea Rubenstein’s debut album. Avi has developed a strong sensitivity to really understanding the personality of the artists he produces and he takes every possible measure to ensure that the album direction and the artist’s personality are perfectly in stride with each other. Everything from song selection to arrangements really expresses the joyous bundle of positive energy that is Benny Friedman. The order of the songs was, I imagine, very carefully thought out. Beyond the strength of individual songs, the album stand together well as a whole. In addition, the “Benny Factor” is carefully phased in. The album starts off on classic Jewish music with strong overtones of personality, but then works its way into the more and more personal as it progresses.
As for the other aspects of the album I will have to cover them in the song by song breakdown since, as I said before, they vary from song to song. I won’t give much more attentions to things such as Benny’s voice because we all know he’s fantastic in that respect … in other words I’ll try keeping away from obvious observations.
1 – Misod – This song has an into that is somewhat old school. You know it well, the classic blaring trumpets heralding the triumphantly prancing superstar or would be superstar on stage. Luckily, the song quickly jumps into a much more contemporary sound as the 1st verse dawns. This song has great Melodic twists that keep it interesting – in other words the notes don’t always go to where you thought they were going. The bass and the guitars, which are essentially the driving forces behind the rhythm here, come through very clearly but without trampling the vocals at all. The choir work is not exactly pioneering but it does the job. Plenty of trumpet and sax for the Jewish music purist, but besides for in the intro, I didn’t find that it was overbearing. The drums could use more resonance, doesn’t seem like the entire range and sustain of the vibrations were captured – the noise gates may have been set too high. Great song, which I think will still be a classic years from now. There was a very warm pipe organ or maybe electric organ (or a very convincing digital keyboard) playing in this song which really enhances the texture, although it would have IMO been beneficial if it were a bit more forward in the mix. The mix overall is very well done. Nice warm sound but not muddy, good use of the effects, EQ etc. Based on the style of the song I would have to guess either Blumstein or Waldner created this one. I’m leaning towards the former as this song really makes me think about Shea Rubenstein’s song “Modim”, also written by Elimelech.
2 – No Lyrics – or what most of us might call a “niggun”. Here’s where the real freshness begins. Great steel string intro. The mostly sparse arrangement – piano, bass, acoustic guitar and light synths really help allow this beautiful melody to shine out. Nice New-Age type of feel. A string section electronica overlay instrumental bridge helps tie together our first taste of the freshness this production team is bringing to the table. When you have an artist with serious personality, you want to display that and that’s what they’re doing with this song. This song is basically Benny saying “You wanna be happy? Here, let me show you how”. This actually sounds like the kind of song I could see Kol Noar Choir doing. In other words, very fresh, very updated, me likes. Choir work for this song really hits the spot. Again, very nice mix job. Everything coming through nice and clear. Nice natural sound, 70’s progressive soft rock sort of feel.
3 – Ukesheim – I thought they should have jumped straight into the piano part of the intro and skipped the trumpets. They didn’t detract terribly but I didn’t find it necessary either. Really absolutely beautiful melody. Arrangements kept basic again, really highlighting the song and Benny’s angelic voice. I’m particularly admiring the mix in this song. Every note comes through clearly and the instruments all have just the right amount of reverb and warmth. I want that piano … as well as the recording engineer that did such an amazing job capturing its every tint and hue. Strings kept back in the mix just enough to add depth without detracting. Did I mention I really love that piano, ach such a full vareme sound, even on the higher notes.
4 – Taamu – While I really like the arrangements here, as well as the mix – note how every beat of the drums resonates clearly – I was at first very uncertain about this song. I am however finding that it grows on you quickly. Singolda (presumably) on the guitars keeps a nice drive going here and the bass player is just awesome. Really just going all over the place creating interesting movement and harmonies while still managing to shadow the guitar enough to support the driving rhythm. Choirs ok, but nothing to write home about. Great concept, this is the new “happy happy joy joy”.
5 – Hameracheim – Great job on the part of the recording engineers in capturing the subtle nuances of the organic instruments. This is very important in a song that they chose to arrange with a classical music arrangement. I am very happy to hear this as I’ve always been a big believer that if you go with a style, you need to really embrace it. They’ve done that here and it’s certainly successful. I do feel that the low vocals in the beginning should have been done in full projection instead of softly as the chest register vocals done softly seem to get lost in the accompaniment. Also I think the master track was possibly a touch over-compressed, which pulls some of the dimension out. Still an amazing song, but it would have been even more mind-blowing if all of the elements protruded the way they should. Benny really feels every word and I think that really makes this song. The violins and flute work are perfect and leaving out the drums was an excellent move.
6 – Moshiach – Back into the new and fresh, this acoustic dance track is done absolutely perfectly. Nice latin pop beat blends perfectly with smooth synth sounds. Everything from the choirs to the mix is right on target. Notice how the backup vocs are not shadowing the lead on much of the song, which really helps bump up the freshness levels. Really nice layering on the choir parts as well, with a nice airy sort of backing vocal used which fits in perfectly to everything happening around it. Notice also how, while there is a nice drive to the song, the arrangement is actually fairly sparse. The same holds true for the album as a whole. It seems Avi Newmark and co. took a less-is-more approach contrary to the instrumentally overcrowded scene that is the norm in most of Jewish music. The result is quite stunning. Amazing melody, this will be a fav for years to come. Benny, how did you get so happy?
7 – Kad Yasvun – I didn’t get the heimishe accent – used to be people thought every album had to have an English song, no they seem to think you have to have an altered-accent one? Regardless, geat song – almost more of a Tefilla than a song. Benny really feels the lyrics here and does an excellent job of expressing them. We really see a good deal of Benny’s range here and amazingly his voice retains the same strength in most any register, which is something rare and beautiful indeed. Good arrangement while not necessarily anything groundbreaking – but who says everything has to be? Listen to this song and you’ll understand what I was talking about in “Hameracheim”. Notice how in “Kad Yasvun” the low vocals are done fully projected. See how good that sounds? Sticks out much better too, don’t it? Also listen to the difference in how every instrument as well as the vocals seem to have a distinct “spot” in the stereo spectrum. You can almost point out exactly where each performer is standing. That, my friends, is because “Kad Yasvun” is a perfect mix. Well done!
8 – Amar – Nice laid back disco sort of feel here. I don’t feel they got the most out of Benny’s voice here in post production. I’m not sure if the vocal track got too little reverb or needed a touch more echo or possibly a touch less compression on the overall master track. Scratch that – it wasn’t the compression because the other elements of the track are standing out just fine. Maybe just the individual track is over-compressed, maybe it’s something else altogether. Nonetheless this song just has that something that makes it super danceable and super memorable. If they didn’t get the most out of Benny’s voice they definitely did get the most out of Benny’s personality. Great job with the choirs contributing to the overall feel. What really makes this song though is the percussion work, I don’t think this song would be half of what it is without that. Wisely, the percussion was kept fairly forward in the mix and was given plenty of room to move. Very catchy too – my 5 yr old was walking around singing it flawlessly after only hearing it once.
9 – Yaavdecha – Wait, I thought this is Benny’s album – why am I listening to 8th day? This is an absolutely delightful fun filled piece. The chevre from 8th day have obviously spent some time singing with “Cuz Benny” as is evident by the seamless way their voices lock together. This team really did a superb job of picking the right songs and sounds to match Benny’s personality. 9 songs in, while some I like more and others more than that, I haven’t found a dud yet. Very playful arrangement in this song – again a good example of really embracing the sort of feel you’re after without losing any of the Jewish feel. My only critique here is that I feel it would have been better to keep the beat going in the 1st pre-chorus (hevei g’veer) instead of letting it drop completely although I see what they were going for as a way to maximize the effect of the chorus. Very nice touch with the Oboe or Sop Sax (I know I’m so musically ignorant I can’t tell between an Oboe and a Soprano Sax…embarrassing, no?)
10 – Letovah – this is just completely risky and I love it. This song could have so easily flopped with any one aspect not coming together. Luckily, it all comes together quite excellently. Furthermore because it could have gone wrong at any moment, for me it kind of had that tightrope excitement that comes of dangerous musical feats. This song is a musical bungee jump and I am thoroughly thrilled by it. Nice strong rock drum beat…and there’s that bass again!!! That’s gotta be the same guy as in “Taamu” – unmistakeable style. I’m dying to read the insert now, I need to know who this bass guy is. The mix is actually kind of lousy here, they are just running Benny’s vocs over right and left – also they didn’t add enough wetness to the vocal track and you end up with a very dry Benny. Is it just me or does the choir track actually sound warped. I mean come on, it’s almost 2 in the morning (when did you think I did these reviews, I have a real job too you know, a little something to feed the kids) but I don’t think I’m so wasted as to imagine something like that. It sounds like it may have been a case of adding a flanger for cool effect and it backfired – not sure. Still, overall I absolutely love this song big time – maybe my favorite on the whole album. Of special note, check out how smoothly Benny transitions from head-voice into falsetto – seamless!!! I’m impressed!
11 – Batuach Ani – At this 11th song, where most albums are staring to tire and wind down, Taamu is still kicking it up. Great contemporary arrangement – I’m almost at the end of the album and contrary to what the intro of the first song suggested, I haven’t been crowded out by trumpet and sax parts. Avi and company are dragging us into the future of Jewish music and we’ll all be the better for it. Good job all around in the post-production department on this song. Levels are all where they should be and everything sits just right in the stereo spectrum. Effects and EQ cooked perfectly to a light pretty golden brown. Benny’s vocs come through perfectly, which is a good thing being that his rendition of this song is an absolute tear-jerker…here we thought he’s happy all the time, turns out he can cry out to the Eibershter with the best of them as well. Again, nothing groundbreaking on the choirs front, but they get the job done well enough.
12 – Emes – kind of moves back into a classic Jewish music feel, but a great song. Almost like a tribute to his uncle, Avraham Fried. Really has that sort of movement and feel of a playful Fried song, but yet there’s plenty in it that let’s us know Benny has plenty of his own to give. Lyrics are quite a masterpiece in their own right. Lots of brass here, but they held back the entire album, so it’s only fair we let ‘em get some in. The mix is right on target. The only thing I’m not getting here is that there is static under this song?!?! Someone clue me in here, how do we miss that? I’m hoping that was intentional and I’m just missing that it’s cute that it sort of sounds like a vinyl record (which it doesn’t really). It would actually be inexcusable if not for the fact that it’s such a great song. Benny Friedman – good to the last drop!
The verdict: if it would have taken 3 years to complete this album it still would have been well worth the wait. Do yourself a favor and go buy this album. I refuse to write anything more because I’m dying to see that insert. Happy listening!