Thursday, September 6, 2007

Staying on top of new frum music

I'm getting a little frustrated with my 'Recent and Upcoming Albums' posts. I've now done three (or four?) of them. Each time I do a poor job with the Orthodox and Chassid recordings and each time I tell myself I'll do better next time. So what gives?

One reason I didn't get to Michoel Pruzansky, Yishai Lapidot and the some of the other frum performers with new albums is that I find it very hard to get information about them. Curiously, many frum musicians don't maintain any public web presence, whether via a record label site, a performer homepage, or a myspace page. On top of that the regular sources of info I have, including JE Magazine, the JewishMusicReview blog, JewishJukebox, and Mostly Music, are good about announcing new albums but not so good about describing them in the manner I'm used to.

What I'm used to is a band (or record label) assuming that they need to be positioned relative to a wide range of possible genre's and competing sounds. Here are a few typical examples from my most recent 'Recent and Upcoming Albums' post.

  • "Virtuoso classical violin showcasing classical masterpieces. Romantic violin with soul added to each note" - Leonid Levin

  • "Vira’s mellifluous alto voice is powerful, warm, expressive, and pure. Her unique repertoire includes new material written especially for her, as well as Yiddish folk songs, songs of Bessarabian, Romanian and Polish Jewish poets, and of classical and modern Yiddish poets..." Vira Lozinsky

  • "an allstar Latino-Jewish urban music collective"- Hip Hop Hoodios
And this happens in the frum communities too, but mostly (as far as I can tell) in groups that are oriented around rock and hip-hop. For example,
  • "mixes pop, rock, fund and RandB with Jewish themes that are particularly relevant today" - Blue Fringe

  • "The group blends Hip-Hop beats and traditional Jewish Melodies to make a sound that’s fresh and all their own." - Ta-Shma
It's certainly arguable how descriptive these phrases are. ("Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" right?) The larger group of more main-line frum performers don't seem to do this. (At least I have a hard time finding it). Instead, they seem to focus more on the pedigree of the people involved. They seem to be more concerned with who wrote the songs, who produced the album, what guest vocalists were brought in. Here are a couple of examples pulled from JE Magazine.

  • "After the tremendous success of his debut album “Legabay”, Dovid Gabay is back at it again. Under the Production of Avi Newmark Gabay’s second album is well underway. The album features compositions by Jewish music’s elite. Yossi Green, Yitzy Waldner, Boruch Levine, Avi Kula, and Elimelech Blumestein. Joining in on Gabay 2 as arrangers are Yisroel Lamm, Leib Yaacov Rigler, Avremi Gourarie, and Yonatan Razel." - Dovid Gabay

  • "This dynamite album featuring a few songs by by Yitzy Bald, as well as being its producer and arranger is already creating quite a buzz." - Michoel Pruzansky
I'm not part of the frum music community enough to feel like I can explain this or even be sure that my observation is correct. But I've seen writing like this before in the jazz community and between that and other things I've read in the frum media I've got a few thoughts. First, the frum communities value tradition over novelty. Telling everyone how unique you are may not be as good a sales tactic as saying you're just like everyone else, only particularly good.

Second, and this is the part that reminds me of jazz, once you get past the (more or less useless) descriptive prose, it's the strength of the people involved in the album that matter. Lots of jazz writing used assume that everyone was basically playing bop, or post-bop, so describing jazz was pointless. But noting that a talented keyboard player had sat in for the recording was interesting. The challenge with that approach though is it makes the writing (and, to a degree, the music) more insular and risk-adverse. Albums with known names are likely to be better because of the known names. If you're an insider who knows the names. And if these names really do as good a job on this album as they did in the past. And if the new kids really can't measure up.

Anyway, this is all just me thinking out loud and probably (as usual) showing off my ignorance. It's also a long way of saying that I still haven't done a good job including frum albums in my 'Recent and Upcoming Albums' post. If anyone from the frum communities wants to set me straight I'd appreciate it.

I just reread this post and realized I forgot to mention that there are other ways than print/web media that the frum communities (and all music communities) use to help fans find out about music. The most obvious are word of mouth, listening to music in stores, and listening to music on the radio/internet. These all have an important role. In this post I was just thinking about the print/web issues that were giving me a hard time.

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