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Best Of: Tzlil V’Zemer

Out of the major boys choirs that have popped up over the years in Jewish music, Tzlil V’zemer stands out with regards to two aspects: its arrangements, and its selection of soloists. The arrangements, as much as many of them cry out “Eighties!”, were really ahead of their time. No other choir experimented or had so much creativity as Tzlil V’Zemer throughout their first five albums. That is due, mostly, to Mona Rosenblum – whose hand is felt throughout the most creative moments. And showcasing this unique sound, Avraham Rosenberg produced two albums of Tzlil V’Zemer Classics – all-instrumental albums, featuring the basic arrangements with an instrument or two laid over instead of the choir. As for the sound of the choir, as good as it got at times, its chief soloists were almost always gifted. Zohar, Shlomie Dachs, Mendy Wald, Mo Kiss, Yosef Wartelsky and Yehudah Cohen were all child talents of the top tier, and no other choir has succeeded with as many top child soloists as Tzlil V’Zemer.

(****) Vol. 1 – The Little Bird: With the opening notes of Achas Shoalti, you already get the idea that this choir wasn’t going to follow everyone else’s lead. The choir is a bit too thin for my taste here, but at least it does not fail in the cardinal sins of choirs: shrieks and nasal nastiness. The album has solid supporting songs, with a few classics, including Veyatziv, sung at camps across the world, and Nachamu. Some of the more creative songs were Kach He (although I cannot match the words with the tune), and the Sefardic Vehaya Be’Acharit Hayamim. The classic song The Little Bird deserves its own points. The tune itself is ripped off of an Israeli tune called B’Arvot Hanegev. The words, however, when analyzed, turn rather humorous: an eagle saving a silver bird? Since when is the predator going to save the victim from the scavengers? Besides, as one of my friends pointed out to me, it’s not cool to explain your musical parable. Let people figure it out. Whatever the case, this is a nice album, and a good beginning.

(*****) Vol. 2 – Aibershter: This is an excellent collection of songs. The opening tune, Kol Rina, is flawlessly executed, and it’s followed up by the haunting K’ayol Taarog and the incredible Aibershter. The choir is tight, and the soloists shine here as much as any other album – Zohar, in particular, hits his spots with silky smooth solos on those beautiful classics., as well as opening up Hu Yoshieinu. Other mentionable moments are Vehaya Ba’eis, and Mendy Wald’s performance on Yancho. On this CD, more than any children’s choir that I’ve come across, the soloists seem to be taken by the songs, and really perform them properly. I have only one question – when the album was rereleased on CD, the last few seconds of Hu Yoshieinu were cut off. Where was quality control?

(**) Vol. 3 – The Soloists: This should be titled “The Pesach Davis Album”, as it seems like Davis receives most of the solo spots. Davis had a great voice, but it wasn’t Zohar’s – it surprises me that they didn’t use Zohar as much as Davis. The album has a certain lack of originality – whether it’s because they didn’t compose that much for the album, or because the arrangements (excluding Hakshiva) don’t do much. Besides that, there’s the English track “Jews of Silence” about the Russian Jews – umm, London School used that term, as well as that message, in their song, “Children of Silence”. The album’s worth a listen, if only for hearing some of the soloists.

(*****) Wake Up Yidd’n with Gan Yisroel: Shloimie Dachs and Wald lead the soloist lineup on this wonderful collection of English songs from the Lubavitcher Camp Gan Yisroel. But besides for the soloists, this album really shines for its arrangements. The bridge on the title track is particularly well done; and for that we have thanks to Hershel Lebovits (from New York School of Jewish Song). Although NYSJ had its moments, he succeeded here far beyond any of their albums. The songs on this album were taken from Color War songs at Gan Yisroel in the Laurentian Mountains, near Montreal. The majority of the songs have become classics in the Chabad camp world; you’ll find Oh Why, To Love a Fellow Jew, Wake Up Yidd’n, Our Holy House and It Happened Yom Kippur in virtually every Chabad camp songbook that’s made. But most importantly, the choir sings with sweetness and passion. Another notable mention – Yossele Rosenblatt’s (?) Yiddish Zog Shoyn Lecho Doidi has particular charm, despite the raw voice of the adult soloist, Berel Mochkin, and the false Poilisher accent of the choir. This is a wonderful, albeit not very well known, album – crafted with care.

(***) Vol. 4 – Be a Friend/Ki Nicham: It seems that this album was created for Yehudah Cohen. He had a wonderful voice, and he gets solos on 6 out of 10 songs. The flaw of this album is that the synthesizer was working overtime – you can smell the plastic of the keyboard. In terms of song selection, it has three excellent songs, starting with Ki Nicham, and dropping several levels to Haitivah and Ani Maamin. I like the tune for Ani Maamin in general – but why did they choose those lyrics? They end up repeating the same words too much in various sections of the song. The rest of the songs are middle class, not very memorable tunes, and the two English songs are fairly childish. At the end of the day, it gets three stars because the album as a whole somehow maintains a listenable quality, despite all its flaws.

(*****) Vol. 5 – Let Us Grow: Great stuff, from the beginning, all the way through. This is another gorgeous choir album, with stunning spots and classy arrangements. They did rip off a few tunes – the title track is an adaptation of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin, and Betzeis Yisroel is a gospel By the Rivers of Babylon – but the compositions, the arrangements and the soloists, as well as the tightness of the choir, are fantastic. Every song on the album is eminently enjoyable; but the best moments are in the harmonies on Habain Yakir Li – especially the end; Hinei Anochi – another perfect execution of elegant harmonies, authentic arrangements and sweet voices; and Hisoreri, just a great song, with a great performance. This is easily one of the top three choral albums in Jewish music.

(**) Vol. 6 – It’s Never Too Late: And then Rosenberg slipped, with two very weak albums. On this album four out of nine (!) songs have lyrics that Tzlil V’zemer had already used! The arrangements aren’t bad at all, but it just doesn’t seem that as much care was placed in the general production. The English songs are both exceedingly weak lyrically, and none of the tunes stand out. The choir itself sounds great, but the soloists are fairly uninspired. And the Achas Shoalti Medley goes on for too long.

(*) Vol. 7 – Be the Best You Can Be: And again – two songs with lyrics already used: Hisoreri and Hinei Ma Tov. Why? Couldn’t you guys find other lyrics in Tanach? To my ears, the choir is somewhat disconnected from the album itself – it almost seems as if the arrangements had nothing to do with the choir. The tunes just don’t stand up by themselves, and the soloists don’t seem to match the solos they were given. Nothing on this album makes me feel the music.

(*****) Vol. 8 – Hear Us Now: I had thought Tzlil V’zemer was long overcooked, and then Hear Us Now came out – a tremendous album. Besides for the title track, which could have used a few slight rewrites (I find it too similar in structure to Miami’s Ani Maamin, without a significant conclusion), the selection here is excellent, with spectacular arrangements. Yosef Wartelsky shines bright on Nachamu (yeah, another repeated lyric, but at least they’re both good songs), and the rest of the soloists are solid. Mona’s arrangements (how do ya like the beginning of Yiboneh?) are powerful. Great songs up and down the album – personal favorites are Adir, Rochok and Nachamu. Great job by composers, producers and singers. I like.

(*) Hooked on Chanukah: Unoriginal name (too many “hooked on” albums in Jewish music) , weak arrangements, and old and dusty songs (for the most part) make this a one-and-done album. They did do a tremendous job on Chanukah Oh Chanukah, which was performed live, and therefore has a better arrangement than the rest of the album. And Yoni Gershon’s There’s a Light is a great song, but the choir takes no part in it. And besides that, Gershon himself did a FAR better job, when he performed it on the video Miracle Days. Why did he have to rerecord? And where was the choir?

Best English song: Aibershter. No challenge here.
Best fast song: Ki Nicham, or Kol Rina #1
Best slow song: K’ayol Taarog
Best Album: #5, which has the best harmonies

Top Soloist: I’m sticking with Zohar.

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