Review by Devir Kahan. Besides for being a long-time fan of Jewish music, Devir is the Editor In Chief of http://dafaleph.com/ — a website of Jewish thought for thoughtful Jews.
It’s that thing that causes Jewish music fans of all varieties to rejoice: the release of a new Shwekey album. This time, it’s got the double-title of We Are A Miracle — Ma’amin Benisim and is produced by Yaakov Shwekey himself, not his former producer Yochi Briskman. The first thing you’ll notice is the rather intense album artwork. It made quite a stir when it first appeared on Twitter a couple of days before the album’s release, and for good reason — it’s meaningful, intriguing, emotional, and a rather radical departure from the typical name-of-singer-in-block-text covers typical of the Jewish music industry. That’s not the only thing unique about this album, though. The eleven tracks are rather eclectic, ranging quite a spectrum in style of music, each sharing little in common with the preceding song. This is neither good nor bad, but, if I had to bet, is a direct outgrowth of Shwekey’s departure from Briskman.
Many things are the same, though: Most of the songs’ composers are familiar, Shwekey’s voice sounds as phenomenal as always, and the production value and layering of the tracks are truly top-notch (something that really comes through on higher-end headphones). There are some safe-bet tracks, some riskier ones, some that will no doubt be quite popular, and others that will fade as quickly as they came. Needless to say, there’s much to talk about, so let’s get to it…
This is the obligatory Israeli pop song on the album. These seem to be more and more common in modern Jewish music. Some are better than others, of course, and despite the high production value on this track, I would put it in the “others” category. Even the chorus seems to fizzle out each time after its first clause. There’s just not much going on. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s rather formulaic and will no doubt get old pretty quickly. It’s a fun beat, nice to listen to, and will no doubt be played non-stop at a every summer camp this year, but it’s not at all Shwekey’s best work. That’s not too big of a deal though, as some of the other upbeat tracks on the album more than make up for Ma’amin Benisim’s general mediocrity.
Two songs in and we encounter what could well be the best slow track on the album (though there is tough competition here, as we shall see). It’s beautiful both in its lyrics and, more importantly, melody. It’s both classic Shwekey, and distinctly modern. The refrain of “ha’achavah” at the end of each verse works incredibly well, and the chorus is beautiful too. The song progresses and builds nicely, and I can easily see this being the next big wedding song (though there’s nothing quite like the way that Shwekey himself sounds on these songs). There is something of an odd instrumental break at around the 4:00 mark, but otherwise, I would say this one is a winner.
We Are A Miracle
If ever there was a master of the rather precarious waters that are Jewish songs with English lyrics, it’s Yaakov Shwekey (just think Momma Rachel, Shema, etc.). And that is no small feat, as they can often be extremely cheesy and rather hard to listen to. Indeed, I think Shwekey himself took something of a misstep in this regard with his last English track I Can Be. With We Are A Miracle, though, the good English songs of yesteryear are back, but in a massively updated way. Far from being typical, there is almost nothing cliché about this song at all. It’s not quite fast, nor is it slow. Both the verses and the chorus are catchy (with the uncommon phenomena of the verses actually probably more so in this case); the choirs in the background sound great, and lyrics — the primary concern when it comes to English Jewish songs — are solid. It’scool, clever, and different. I like it.
This one took a little while to grow on me, but I find myself humming it now far too often (or so say those around me). It leans a touch Israeli/techno, but not overly so. It’s also far, far less formulaic than something like Ma’amin Benisim. It’s got quite a few sections to the song that build as it goes, so it’s not at all a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-end sort of song structure. It is also a masterful display of the blending of musical styles: for instance, there is a sophisticated bass line punctuated by trumpets — not something you hear every day. If you didn’t love this song the first couple of times you heard it, give it another go. It’s one of my favorites on the album.
This track would feel just as at-home on Shwekey 2 or Yedid as it tries to feel on this album. Once more, it’s not a bad song (I don’t think Shwekey is capable of such a thing), it’s just forgettable (especially given the rather famous words chosen for the song). Certainly, given the composers that Shwekey has access to — and the fact that they are giving him their best stuff — the filler on a Shwekey album is often quite good, but this song felt rather out of place here. I don’t particularly like it, despite appreciating the throwback to the older Shwekey albums. That’s the thing, though — it feels like just a throwback, and not much more.
I’ll come right out with it: I think this is the best upbeat song on the album. There’s not too much to say here beyond that, other than that it’s got great lyrics with an even better alliteration to them, has a unique and catchy tune, and executes perfectly. One can hope that this will end up being the popular dance track from the album, but it’s unlikely. Oh well. I still think it’s the best. I really like this song.
If ever Shwekey’s personal life has come through on an album, it’s in this song. It’s heavily Sephardic, and is something of a lament and ode to R. Ovadia Yosef tz”l. My slight unease with some of the lyrics aside, Shwekey’s emotion really comes through and delivers a solid end result. It’s not my favorite, but it’s really nice to see a track that so clearly comes from the singer’s heart, and I can see people liking it for that reason alone.
This is really the sort of song that only Shwekey can pull off. It leans a touch Arabic, actually, and while I would certainly say that both Smachot and Biderech Hamelech are superior songs, Inshallah is quite good in its own right. It’s a nice dance/wedding song with a unique element to it. I like it.
Chaim Shel Shalom
The first time I heard this song I would have ranked it without hesitation behind Birchas Habayis. Now, I’m less sure. In many ways it’s similar, but I think there is a lot more going on here, from the intriguing flow of the verses, to the once-more beautiful refrain of “ha’yekarim” at the end of said verses, to the use of a kids choir, to the (certainly intentional?) use of the Lion King harmony in the chorus. That chorus, though, is not nearly as strong as the one in Birchas Habayis is. I’m not sure which track is better per se, but, luckily, we get to have them both in Shwekey’s already extensive repertoire of truly beautiful music.
Chaval Al Hazman
I must confess that the first number of times I heard this song I didn’t much care for it. It reminded me of Osim Tshuvah off Kolot — an attempt to do something interesting, different, and unique that results in a decent track that everyone can say sounds cool, but no one really listens to all too often. Unlike Osim Tshuvah, though, the more I have listened to Chaval Al Hazman, the more I have come to like it. Not only that, but this is exactly the sort of thing I think that Jewish music needs more of. They really nailed this one. It’s unique and different, and certainly stands out as such. It’s catchy, and clever, and even cute in all the best ways, and has a style that I’ve never heard before in Jewish music. Everything from the awesome bass line to the almost-Jazz trumpets, to the vocal slides come together to make something truly special. There is even an unexpected switch to English lyrics in the middle. It’s different done well.
Every time I hear this song I get emotional. It’s just the way Shwekey sings the song. It’s incredibly heartfelt and full of yearning, commensurate with the message of the beautiful lyrics. In terms of melody, it’s not overly complex, I don’t think, but the way that it is sung makes this track something special. From the soulful verses to absolutely nailing the high notes in the chorus, this song is one of the more memorable closes to an album in recent memory.
In all, this album is really quite good. Not incredible, but good. (Certainly, nobody can levy the accusation that all the songs sound the same.) There are no real missteps here, but nor are there really any “instant classics” either. It’s hard to say that there is anything quite like Im Eshkochaich, Vehi Sheamdah, Ma Ma Ma, Areivim, even Tefillat Kallah or any other myriad of truly timeless Shwekey songs on this album. In Shwekey’s rather impressive and extensive discography, I’m not sure just how much this album stands out.
Let’s not forget, however, that this is also the first time that Shwekey is out on his own, so to speak. So while this might not be Shwekey’s best work, it is also his most experimental, different, and adventurous. In short, I’m more interested than ever to see what Shwekey’s next album will be like. It is, after all, that thing that causes Jewish music fans of all varieties to rejoice: the release of a new Shwekey album. Let the cycle continue.