Every once in a great while, I’ve posted a book review here. It’s really been quite some time since I’ve done so–perhaps a year? Two years?
Well, I’m still not posting a book review. I am, however, posting an album review for Nefesh Mountain’s self-titled first album.
Nefesh Mountain describes itself as combining “Jewish spirit and soul” with “Bluegrass and Old-Time musical traditions.” (The group’s website is here.) The group is led by the “Husband and Wife team” of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff.
So, what does Jewish bluegrass and old-time music sound like? In Nefesh Mountain’s case, quite a bit of it sounds like Alison Krauss and Union Station, and there are far worse things to sound like. Alison Krauss and Union Station is, after all, the best selling bluegrass group…well, probably ever, and if not ever, then very nearly so. What doesn’t sound like Alison Krauss sounds more or less like well-performed, well-produced country music–folk-ish, pop-ish, but not revolutionary. The music is helped along by a bevy of guest stars, including Sam Bush, Scott Vestal, Mark Schatz, Rob Ickes, and Gary Oleyar. (These are big coups for a first-time effort–Sam Bush is among the artists who helped revolutionize bluegrass in the 1970s to create “New Grass.” Bush’s playing added rock, jazz, and reggae flavor to bluegrass. Jazz aspects also came into bluegrass through others–including Jewish mandolin players David Grisman and Andy Statman. I’m certain there’s a good paper to be written by someone on Jewish bluegrass and old-time musicians, as there’s quite a substantial subculture of Jewish bluegrass musicians.)
The tracks on the album are a combination of originals, Jewish “standards” (for lack of a better word), and some songs that mix the two. For example, “Esa Einai,” often most widely known in its performance by Shlomo Carlebach, is on the album, with both Hebrew and English lyrics. Another song, “Brothers and Sisters,” turns the traditional “Hinei M,a Tov” into a chorus, wrapping original English lyrics around the chorus. There are a few breakdowns–bluegrass instrumental songs, where individual instrumentalists take turns playing solos that riff off of a melody established at the beginning of the song. Most of the music is original, too–“Esa Einai,” for example, does not use the well-known Carlebach melody (the Hebrew words, of course, are from a Psalm).
For my own taste, I thought that the vocal songs that are true originals (like “Singin’ Jewish Girl” and “Adonai Love Me”) had less interesting lyrics than those that were adapted from established songs. The instrumental pieces, including “Xander the Highlander” and “Millie’s Waltz,” are quite good. Perhaps the best of the instrumental pieces, and certainly the least bluegrassy-y, is also the most spare: “Suszno,” a banjo instrumental of a decidedly freygish flavor (freygish is the Yiddish name for the Phrygian dominant mode–frequently used in Eastern European, Klezmer, Middle Eastern, and Spanish music). It’s a fabulous reminder that the banjo isn’t just a bluegrass instrument, and that Scruggs-style banjo playing (the typical way of playing bluegrass banjo–with fingerpicks and a thumbpick) is remarkably flexible. (There is a Polish village named Suszno, and a Ukrainian village named Sushno that, on the Polish-language Wikipedia, is given the Polish name Suszno. Surely I mentioned at some point that I took Russian in high school and college and thus can read a tiny bit of Ukranian, too?)
So, what should you definitely listen to? “Esa Einai,” “Xander the Highlander,” “Millie’s Waltz,” and “Suszno” are the musical standouts. Also worth listening to–and learning!–is the melody in “Brothers and Sisters.” The English lyrics are good enough, but the song serves an additional use: it provides another quite catchy tune for “Hinei Ma Tov.” That’s always a handy thing, since the existing stable of melodies for that song are…shall we say, rather well-tread at this point.
So, the bottom line? Because of its Alison Krauss and Union Station style, it’s not a “hardcore,” old-style bluegrass album, which makes it an easier listen than if Nefesh Mountain’s style were more in line with some of the founding bluegrass groups like Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, so it has some appeal to country fans beyond the bluegrass scene. The lyrics are not unlike some of Debbie Friedman’s songs–this is by no means “Orthodox” Jewish music, bandying about “Adonai” with relative abandon–and so the album has broader appeal to Jewish music fans.
If you’re a Humanistic Jew? Well, there are parts of the album that just won’t appeal as much–there’s plenty about faith, belief, etc., that just won’t be as appealing. It’s an interesting thing to observe that non-Humanistic liberal Judaism has taken quite a turn to language of belief.
But it’s at least worth a listen.