Sunday, June 24, 2007

Beth Schafer: The universal and the particular

Beth Schafer's 'Build that Bridge'Back in March I posted about the Jewess interview of Beth Schafer and noted that I didn't know much about Schafer's 'contemporary Jewish music' scene. After the post I got a nice note from Schafer offering to send me a CD that would help. She was as good as her word and last week I got an advance copy of her new album, 'Build That Bridge,' in the mail. Schafer's got a good voice, plays a good guitar, and has a sharp backing band. She describes her album, saying that "she learned a big lesson when she won the 2006 American Idol Underground Faith Based competition. What was the lesson? That universality in songs is key... If you believe in God, trust in the potential of humanity and want to bring about an era of peace, AND if you love upbeat, well-produced contemporary rock, THIS CD IS FOR YOU!"

Unfortunately, this album is definitely not for me. It misses on many levels. Partly, it's a style thing. I just don't enjoy this style of music. I find the arrangements bland in a sugary upbeat way. I hit fast-forward 11 times looking for a track that grabbed my attention. But more than that, I find the lyrics gratingly shallow, in an equally sugary upbeat way. The only song that I resonated with at all was the first verse or two of 'Good Enough.' (Her website currently has it available for free download.) "You don't need to think that you're better, you need to believe that you're good enough. You don't have to know all the answers, just ask the questions and that's good enough..." In general, I found the lyrics vague, trite, and not much more interesting than the umm, umm, la, la's that fill up many of the tracks.

After listening to it a few times, I think I figured out what bugs me so much about this album. Schafer's comment about 'universality' being 'the key' helped me understand her a lot. Schafer is singing to a wide audience and is proud of singing in "both mega-churches and synagogues." She wants to write positive anthems that these audiences can sing together. To get this universality, her lyrics include nothing that couldn't be sung happily by both groups. The cost: there is nothing particular about her songs. For me, what makes a song strong is it's idiosyncrasy, what it says that nothing else could say. That's what I resonate with. And I didn't see much. It was all very smooth and forgettable. I also looked hard to find any sense of who Schafer is and, other than her genuine positive energy, I couldn't find it. And if I don't know who she is, then how can any part of me connect to her?

Anthems are hard and, I think, misunderstood. The best anthems become universal because they are deeply anchored in a particular context. Springsteen's 'Born in the USA', probably the greatest accidental anthem in the last 30 years, gets it power from its lyric not its chorus. Sure, it's the chorus that's burned in everyone's brain, but it was his lyrics that set the context. "I had a buddy at Khe Sahn. Fighting off the Viet Cong. They're still there, he's all gone. He had a little girl in Saigon. I got a picture of him in her arms. I'm a long gone daddy in the USA, Born in the USA." It's the particular combination of pride, pain, bravado, and futility of the lyric that infuses all of our late-night drunk encores.

That's what I was hoping for from 'Build That Bridge.' What are the particulars? Why is it important that we build a bridge? Why is it so hard to do? And why should we care? I listened to the album about 5 times and I still don't. Sorry Beth. I tried.

Wow, there's a really lively discussion going on in the comments section for this review. Check it out and add your opinion.


John Marsden said...

Wow - well they say opinions are like a**h*les, 'cause everybody's got one, but can you say "MISS THE POINT"?!? Children have become a great indicator for me of a catchy song, and my children consistantly ask for Beth's new CD over any of the other commercial CDs I own. I think that's because the strength of "Build That Bridge" is that it's message is SIMPLE and HAPPY. Most of the messages in the old & new Testaments of the Bible fall in that category. At what point did we become SO jaded that everything has to be complex in order to be powerful or TRUE? This review reminds me of a jazz snob reviewing smooth jazz. Is Beth breaking new lyrical or thematic ground? No, but that's not the point since humanity STILL can't seem to grasp the old themes (Love Your Neighbor, Love Multiplies, Good Enough). Call them simplistic (which I'm not sure is a BAD thing), but that doesn't detract from the fact that these themes are TRUE and more importantly, in need of being repeated in our VERY broken world. Maybe that's why Beth won the latest round of American Idol Underground's Faith Based Competition (1st AND 2nd place - both songs are on this release - Still Small Voice & Love Multiplies). She's reminding us what's really important and obviously a largely Christian audience agreed. My advice to the reviewer: stop being a reviewer and just listen - MAYBE you'll be graced with "getting it"!

Anonymous said...

Music that is successful is music that touches people... on a daily basis. It is often argued that music by Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Rush is better than music by AC/DC. Hmmm... Heard any ELP on classic rock radio lately? I guarantee you'll hear AC/DC. Why? Simple common themes that strike a chord with the masses. "Build That Bridge" is exactly that and is executed quite well I might add. Did you smoke a fatty and listen to your copy of "Brain Salad Surgery" before you wrote this review?

Anonymous said...

After listening to the new Beth Schafer CD "Build That Bridge" I finally felt some hope in a world that seems to have lost the hope of peace, "everyone getting along", religious and ethnic divisions healed. I suggest you listen to the CD again and tell me whether you don't feel the hope? In a society that idolizes those without talent finally here someone comes along who is an immense singing/songwriting talent and you call it simplistic? Most of the "perfect" music written throughout time could be called that...see a Mozart melody line, a Verdi aria, the Beatles, Stones, etc.
If simplistic means memorable, hummable, cant get it out of your mind and heart...and maybe even (dare I say it) your soul...than I agree.

Jack said...

Wowsers. I'm getting beaten up here. That's great folks, I'm glad you like the album enough to defend it. But it doesn't work for me. And I'm really not a critic, I'm just a music fan. When I write about an album I'm writing from my personal musical experience with it. My experience was hitting the fast forward 11 times looking for something I connected with and then spending over a week listening to it over and over again to let it grow on me. My writing experience was trying to figure out why it didn't grow on me. I'm not a snob. There are simple, joyful recordings I love. This one isn't one of them. I don't find it memorable. Sorry. I'm really glad, though, that it does work for you.

Jack said...

So I've got an offer. I'd be delighted if anyone wants to be a guest reviewer. Tell me why you love Beth Schafer and the album. Feel free to comment on why I'm an idiot ;). You write it. I'll post it. (Or set you up so that you can post it yourself.) Any takers?

Anonymous said...

Let's be clear... Differing opinions are the spice of life. Nothing hateful here, just good dialog! Keep it coming...

Post No Bills said...

Hi, Jack. I'll leave the reviewing to you, but I had a thought about the recent exchange:

I agree that "Born in the USA" is a great anthem, although I think it's interesting that you choose it as an example. You'd have to admit that's it's one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood pop songs of the last 25 years. Even Ronald Reagan thought it was "patriotic" based solely on the chorus (it is patriotic in its own way, but that's another issue). I've heard far more people assign some kind of jingoist, knee-jerk patriotism to it than I have people who understood the critique of America's politics and priorities that "Born in the USA" actually is.

Simple statements of joy, love, and togetherness (like Beth's music) don't always feel 'heavy' or 'deep' because there's no sub-text. The song is what it is. Springsteen's lyrics get misinterpreted because there's something more to dig out of every line. Is there more to the story, more to the character, more to the intention? It's the difference of talking about joy and actually creating something joyful.

Remember Randy Newman's "Short People?" It's hard to believe that people could think he was actually giving 'vertically challenged' a hard time, but there it was in the press.

Hey, you're perfectly within your rights to not like a piece of music or a lyric (and blog about it to your heart's content), but consider that no one looks for the sub-text of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." They're just meant to bring joy. Heaven knows Paul McCartney has made a long, successful career out of "Silly Love Songs."

Cantor Brad Hyman said...

Unlike some other responders, I rather respect different opinions and tastes in music. I find that it makes for a better sauce.

However, I would like to point out that there are times when I am listening to an album and I find even more present in the music than I was looking for- the point being that I was on a search for something in my listening, and I either find it or I don't.

I believe that the reviewer of Beth's album was on a critical search for something that no one, not Beth, not anyone could give him at that particular moment. There was a search for something "high art" in a piece of work that was speaking to the masses.

I personally don't care what awards Beth wins. It won't make me listen to her music any more or any less. But I do care about what Beth is saying with her words and her music. There is no crime in using a "hook" in a song, a "la-la" moment to bring in people who have no vocabulary to a moment of equality. I think that it is important to know what you are searching for before you rant about what you didn't find in the music.

Perhaps then I will understand better why the reviewer didn't like this album. I love it... But again, I know what I need and I'm able to find it through Beth's music.

Cantor Brad Hyman

Jack said...

Gee, Cantor. I'm glad you signed your note "respectfully" otherwise I might not have noticed. I really don't appreciate you're describing my review, which I spent a lot of time and thought on, a rant. I'm also not so sure I appreciate your characterizing me as being on "a critical search for something that no one, not Beth, not anyone could give him at that particular moment." I actually just wrote a review of Mare Winningham's great new album and am shaking my butt to Socalled's new album. So, while I cheerfully accept that my opinion seems to be in the minority and while I genuinely appreciate the comments made by all of the commentators, save me the arm chair analysis. Tell me what you think. Let me tell you what I think.

Jack said...

Hi 'Post No Bills'. Thanks for the comment. I'm with you on many of your comments and agree that 'Born in the USA' might be the wrong comparison point. John Lennon's 'Imagine' might be better. Schafer isn't writing at the level of 'Don't Worry Be Happy', though. Or 'Louie Louie' for that matter. She's got a pretty clear rhetorical stance. She wants us to buy into some pretty specific ideas about peace and joy. And while, I'm on board with the ideas, her presentation of them just doesn't grab me. I had a friend in college who wrote a song called 'The Sound Of Peace" and I made many of the same comments to her. The main one being, that once she was done with the song, I still had no idea what she though Peace should Sound like. The sentiment was wonderful, but the song itself was immediately forgettable. (I only remember the conversation). That matters to me a lot. I hear a lot of music and can usually tell when I hear something I'll remember later. Otherwise it's like eating potato chips. Listen all you want there will be another one soon. And please, no one yell at me for comparing this album to a bag of potato chips. I'm just trying to help folks understand where my taste comes from and why I respond to particular songs in particular ways.

Unknown said...

Hey Jack, sorry it's not for you. I have no intention of trying to change your “taste” in music; that would be futile. I do, however, disagree with you regarding my messages. I believe joy doesn't have to be shallow, faith doesn't have to be blind, and composers don't have to be angst-ridden and sardonic to be successful. In fact, the more I concentrate on the basic lovelies of life (love multiplies, still small voice, in this house, a way to say ah, build that bridge), the more successful I've become. I have struck a nerve, almost accidentally, that has galvanized my audience into celebrating the positive in their lives.

At the risk of opening up another controversial can of worms, I wonder how many of my brothers and sisters in the Jewish community are programmed to identify only with the “minor key” part of our collective persona? Does it have to be sorrowful to be Jewish? Are we capable of celebrating in ways other than what a klezmer band would play at a wedding? Do we have to be overcoming something to feel the substance of our lives? My personal experience in leading weekly Shabbat services is that people come to get rid of the heaviness of their week, they CRAVE a positive vibe and are hungry for someone to force them to find the glass half full. Of course, there are many times for pensive reflection (and there is still much to overcome for our people), and if you knew my entire body of work, you’d know that I have written my share of songs about love and loss, life and death. But I know many Jews who are afraid that if they just celebrate life and even faith, their celebration will make them sound Christian. I don’t think we lose our identity by being positive, nor do we affirm our identity by continuing hundreds of years of self-deprecation. And, although Judaism is a religion of deed over creed, it’s much easier to approach any acts of lovingkindness we may attempt, when we’re in a good mood. Maybe, to some, there is no way to wrap your head around the fact that BUILD THAT BRIDGE could be JEWISH, and therefore why are we even talking about it in this forum?

How often is religion in the news for something positive? It always seems to be in the news for something fundamentally askew. I just don't buy it. I have witnessed first-hand Jews, Christians and even Muslims happy and moved because of something my music unlocked in them. It's obvious I won't please everyone (if I were trying to do that I'd be a politician), but I'm good with the musical and spiritual course I'm on. I hope that whatever you listen to, it brings you to a better place than where you started and inspires you to improve the world. And, for the record, Jack, I know you’re a good guy and wish you all the best!

Post No Bills said...

Re: "The Universal and the Particular": I agree that music (or any art for that matter) can be so wimpy and general that it becomes 'wallpaper' and loses any specificity or power, like a greeting card. I can't take "cotton-candy" music any more than you.

All I know is, Beth's music brings a smile to my face when I sing along, and lines like "Who is brave enough to be humble; Who stands tall enough to sit down?" would be good questions to ask for any leader facing some of the political situations in which we find ourselves right now. So is it profound, or light-weight? Or just not everyone's cup of tea?

Jack said...

"All I know is, Beth's music brings a smile to my face when I sing along" That sounds like as good a recommendation as any.

Jack said...


You said, "Maybe, to some, there is no way to wrap your head around the fact that BUILD THAT BRIDGE could be JEWISH, and therefore why are we even talking about it in this forum?"

As is obvious by my writing a review, I certainly feel it's worth talking about in this forum. And I definitely feel that there's room in Judaism for both pensive 'minor key' reflections and for songs with a positive vibe. There are plenty of examples of such in Judaism. Just look at the entire cannon of Shabbat zemirot. (Yom Shabbaton is a personal favorite).

I do think that, as a religion, we're a period of recovery. For generations, American Jewery (primarily Reform and Conservative Jews) have been largely ambivalent, assimilated, focusing more on the Holocaust and Israel than on matters of the spirit. The recovery is popping up all over in all sorts of odd ways, including the popularity of Hassidim, the development of all sorts of alternative havurah, bands like yours and blogs like mine (which is equally comfortable talking about liturgical, spiritual, and secular Jewish music. But I think you're right, there is enough of legacy that I could imagine your music can seem a bit out there to some.

I'll admit that you're music does seem more Christian than Jewish to me (not that it bothers me), but it's not for any of those reasons. It's mainly that since I grew up in the US, with a dominant Christian culture, I'm constantly bombarded by Christian religious themes and messages. For a song, painting, movie to feel Jewish to me, then, it has to reference some Jewish element in a way that a similar Christian song, painting wouldn't. Since you're trying to speak across religious barriers, you've avoided such elements and, to me, ended up sounding like one of many Christian rock bands I've heard.

But that's fine. It was clear where you were coming from and what you were trying to achieve. I don't like or dislike your album for that reason. I've actually heard a number of Christian groups that I enjoyed a great deal.

Overall, I'm with you. I think that we Jews could use a bit more positive spirituality as part of our daily lives. If you're music is bringing that to you and to a larger group of folks. That's great.

Anonymous said...

I am a fan of Beth's and have been for several years. My first intro to her music was the the UAHC Biennial in Boston in 2001. We New Yorkers were on a real emotional roller coaster then, needless to say. I picked up her CD on a whim. While driving home, I fell into A Way To Say Ah. I immediately had to call a friend on the cell phone and crank up the car radio to share the song. If it was one of my records I would probably have played the grooves out of the disc on the way home.
I found and still find Beth's music to have a depth and a connection to my heart. Is it complex? In many ways, yes. Her musical talents and skills and the talents of her band are phenomenal. She provided a real solid foundation for a lot of the music in Minneapolis at the Biennial there. Her message may be less complex, but it is a message that is so critical in this day and age. If it was too obscure and/or deep, most of us might miss it. And her's is a message that must not be missed.
Peter Levy - ny

Jack said...

Peter, thanks for adding your feelings about Beth's music. It occurs to me that, perhaps, one of the challenges of my listening to 'Build That Bridge' is one of context. I've never seen Beth live like you did at the UAHC Biennial. I was exposed to BTB through an advance copy that Beth kindly sent me. I've listened to it in my car and at home, but have never sung along. I'm not sure that my opinion would change if I were to do so, but it might. There have been a few musicians before that I didn't appreciate until I saw live (or heard on a good live recording). If Beth ever comes near North Coast (Michigan) I'll definitely try to catch her performance.

Anonymous said...

Simplicity from a wonderfully spiritual artist like Beth is what's needed.

And that's why we love playing Beth's music worldwide on Celebrate Radio.

Jews, Catholics, Christians and even Muslims seem to need to get away from very complex themes and hear the main ideas repeated...i.e. Beth's Working for Shalom, Love Thy Neighbor, Paul's insight that Love is even more important than hope and faith, the themes of chesed and tikkun, et al.

We're doing the same thing with an international series of radio psas with similar and yes, simple 'messages.'

But Beth of course adds another wonderful ingredient besides 'messages' and that's really superb entertainment.

And that's just as cherished and just as universal.

Don Fass
One Heart for Kids
Celebrate Radio

Jack said...

Don (and everyone else)

So theres a 'simple and happy' theme that's emerged in the comments. About four commentators have made statements like Don's "Simplicity from a wonderfully spiritual artist like Beth is what's needed."

I don't recall saying otherwise. I guess I may have implied it in my use of the term 'shallow' and my discussion of 'Born in the USA' but I really didn't mean to say that 'simple is bad.'

On the contrary, I'm with you all that a simple lyric and song structure can be all the more powerful for it's simplicity. Saying that something is simple is a way to characterize something, though, not to judge it. A simple song can be written just as poorly as a complicated song, and is just as likely to be.

For a song to be simple and successful (I belive) it has to have a central image or lyric that captures the imagination of the listener. 'Anonymous' mentioned AC/DC as a simle rock band. Yeah, sure, but there are few bands that can come up with images like 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.' Five words, one phrase, and you can write a movie in your head about it. I feel the same way about the Hebrew prayer 'Ma Tovu' (in English 'How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.') I sing it for my girls every night and it resonates with me deeper and deeper every time I do.

There are scads of simple and dumb songs that hit the radio every week. Just listen to Top 40 (or Hot Country) radio and you'll hear plenty of them. I guess that simple, positive, and unsuccessful is better than being simple, negative, and unsuccessful, but an unsuccessful song is just that.

So, simple or complex, there has to be something special about a song or it's just another failed song out of millions that have been written. And we don't have to judge this on the level of 'if it isn't as good as 'Dirty Deeds' or 'Ma Tovu' then it fails.' It can be strictly personal. If it moves you, then it is, for you, successful.

This is a long way of saying, as much as I would have liked to, I don't find Beth's album successful. Simple, sure. But, for me, the images lack substance. Hearing the phrase 'Love thy neighbor' is better than hearing the phrase 'kill thy neighbor' but if that's all the song's got, then it doesn't cut it for me. If I didn't already know what she meant by 'Build a Bridge' I'd be stuck. The song just doesn't help me much.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you about Beth Schafer's current album, I would highly recommend you give her album, the Quest and the Question a listen. I'm listening to it right now and absolutely love it!

Jack said...

Hi Lauren. Finally someone who agrees with me :). If you like the earlier one better, I'll give it a listen. Thanks.

RSL95MOM said...

I originally heard about this "discussion" on June 25, but I'm glad I didn't look at it until today. I understand that the original comments were a personal review of a CD and not the singer-songwriter.

"Build that Bridge" is not my favorite Beth Schafer album, although I enjoy many of the songs on it when listening to them on her other CD's. I'm not sure that's due to the position with other songs or the arrangements for the marketing of this CD.

Based on what you sing to/with your children, you may want to try "Esa Einai" from "Lev b'Lev" and definitely her bedtime song, "Sing Me a Song" from "A Way to Say Ah". Although they are slower, "pretty" songs, I'm sure your children will enjoy them.

BTW -- do you enjoy other Contemporary Jewish Music, like Doug Cotler and Julie Silver?

-- Laurie, Orlando, FL

Jack said...

Hi Laurie,

Thanks for joining the discussion. To answer your question, I don't know enough "contemporary Jewish music" artists to really know whether I like the genre or not. Which is why Beth Schafer so graciously sent me her disc. I mostly know Rich Recht (whom I don't like much), Craig Taubman, Debbie Friedman and Beth Schafer. But I don't know their albums well (other than the one of Beth's I reviewed). I hadn't heard of either Doug Cotler and Julie Silver until you mentioned them. I'd never say I don't like a whole genre of music, but I think its fair to say I haven't found a contemporary Jewish music artist that really grabs me yet. That probably has more to do with my limited exposure than with the genre.

Can I ask you a question? You mentioned that you heard of this discussion back on June 25. How did you hear about it? Is there a mailing list or blog that mentioned it that might also help me get my head (and ears) around the contemporary Jewish music scene?