Monday, November 17, 2008

Josh Nelson Project - Lift

Lift album coverI'm driving quickly on snowy highway at dusk, the music swirling to match the rising snow. A vocal crescendo, over a wailing guitar. Adonai tzuri! Yeah.

I've been waiting for this album a long time. Since high school, really. I've been waiting for someone to let it rip like this, with well crafted sung from the heart and Jewish sentiment in every lyric. I wanted this badly when I was a kid. Now that I have it, though I'm not sure what to make of it.

This is a review of the Josh Nelson Project's album Lift, so let me start by saying that somewhere in your life is a Jewish teenager who needs this album. This album will hold it's own against pretty much anything on pop radio right now. Nelson's a fine instrumentalist and singer with a sure sense of how different pop genre's work. His songs mix and match styles, with a gentle groove underscoring an anthemic vocal style. Unlike a lot of music coming out of the Contemporary Jewish Music community you can tell these songs did not start life as happy clappy sing-alongs, though I'll be there's a lot of singing at his concerts. I don't have any tracks to link to, but go listen to the sample tracks on his website or myspace page.

Right now I have the title song Lift cranked, loving the faux-middle eastern shimmy, the pounding drums, and the popcorn sounding riff that ends each main phrase. But I also have some misgivings. First off, for a rock album, I find it way too well mannered. Nelson has a great voice, but it's passionate in a well-scrubbed, well-satisfied, sort of way. Nelson's guitar is the same, he's got some good licks but they're polite, safe. Is that wrong? Of course not, it's perfect for it's material. But at the same time, it leaves me wanting. The lyrics as well.
from Lift
In this tired world, in this broken peace
I am not afraid, I am not afraid
In the darkest hour, I will find my way
On this narrow bridge

Lift me up and lift my eyes, far above these falling skies
Give me hope and give me love, and I will sing Your praises
Days of wonder, days of peace, times of blessing, love released
Give me hope, and give me love, and I will sing Your praises

Josh NelsonThese are good lyrics, earnest and heart-felt. But at the same time I find them shallow and bland. It reminds me of hearing a young, earnest, folk singer sing in college. Her closing song lauded the sound of peace. I remember talking to her after the concert and complaining that I still didn't know what peace sounded like. Her song made it clear that she was hearing it, but refused or didn't know how to share the sound with me, even though I wanted to hear it. Lift is inspired by Esa Einai, Psalm 121:1-2, but doesn't make it connect. Days of wonder, days of peace, times of blessing, love released is a great line. But I still don't know what love has been released, and even if I want to guess, the song doesn't help me feel that release. I want to feel it. I want it. But, once again, I didn't get it.

But this is all secondary to the main point. Nelson has raised the bar, showing the kind of album a musician serious about his Jewishness can make. And I'm sure my frustration is not shared by the fans that pack his concerts and will make this album fly of the shelves. Some of whom will probably take me to task for being a grump or a snob. (It's true, I'm both. The first riff of Yih’yu L'ratzon is about a note off of the main riff in the Dada song Dizz Knee Land, a not nearly so polite song.)

Oh, I almost forgot, the Josh Nelson Project will be appearing on the Craig Taubman PBS special lights! Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert, which should begin airing at the end of November and on the album of the concert, which I just got in the mail and will be reviewing soon..


Heidi Estrin said...

Speaking of Josh Nelson, thanks very much for tipping me off to the "Lights" CD/concert when I wrote to ask you about new Chanukah music. Because of your tip, I had the opportunity to interview Josh about his part in that concert and about Lift. The interview will appear on the December episode of The Book of Life podcast, so I hope you'll check it out. I haven't had a chance to hear Lift yet, so I appreciate your thoughtful review.

Also, I wanted to share some music news from my last podcast. If you haven't heard of the Klezmer Company Orchestra, the ensemble in residence of the Florida Atlantic University library, I hope you'll check them out. Their klezmer fusion CD Beyond The Tribes is really unique and really fun. I interviewed Aaron Kula, the orchestra leader, in my November episode, and there are KCO videos and links at

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Jack said...

That's great, Heidi. I'm looking forward to hearing the podcasts. I just got a review copy of Lights in the mail and am looking forward to hearing it myself. I'll definitely check out the Klezmer Company Orchestra, sounds like good fun.