Abie Rotenberg. If he composed it, it’s probably going to be good. There aren’t too many composers who are that good that their name next to a song means quality. I would place him second only to Shlomo Carlebach (Yossi Green would be third) in the top Jewish composers list. His songs are hartzig, earnest and pleasant – he has an eidelkeit, a sense of refined taste, that is a rarity; especially in today’s music. Delicate harmonies and sweet sounds accompany every one of his albums. Besides all that, his songs have become literally world famous. No kumzits can be held without Abie songs – Hamalach, Acheinu or VeliYerushalayim. Abie is truly an authentic source of Jewish music.
Important point: While not every song mentioned here was composed by Abie, I’m including them all together, as he is heart and soul behind all these groups and albums.
A quick note about D’veykus – the name matches the sound: a feeling, a desire, to cleave to G-d. D’veykus songs typically express that longing. Led by Leibel Scharfman, and accompanied by Abie, Rivie Schwebel, Yossie Sonnenblick and others, D’veykus set impossibly high standards for other groups. D’veykus classics belong in the “songs of the millennium” division. Their sound is easy and folky in their early albums; full and symphonic in their later incarnations. Each album has spectacular songs and sweet vocals.
(***) Vol. 1: D’veykus’ first album is fairly raw, but heartfelt and inspiring nonetheless. The overture introduction to Mi Yaaleh ended up being a D’veykus tradition, carried out on every album besides for #2. With this album you understand immediately what D’veykus is all about – soft solos and sweet harmonies. At this point, there really is nothing intricate. But there are some beautiful songs, including all-timers, such as Koh Ribon, Lev Tahor and Hinei Yamim Ba’im. It has a few lesser songs as well, Mechalkel Chaim and Toras Emes to be specific. For some reason, Abie’s slower songs generally end up having more power in them than his fast tunes, and on this album you see that quite clearly.
(***) Vol. 2: From Kol Dodi, you see more power involved in the vocals; the faster songs go further and have more depth than on their first album. Another excellent album, headlined by the ultra-classic Kol Berama, and followed closely by Hinei Keil, Lakol Zman and In A Vinkeleh. Simple beauty at work here. A D’veykus oddity: Od Yishoma is ripped off from What Do You Say to a Drunken Sailor. That’s the first and last time Abie stole from a non-Jewish source (to the best of my knowledge).
(*****) Vol. 3: Abie created more magic on this album than many composers do in their entire career. Half this album gives me the chills when I hear it: VeliYerushalayim (and the stunning Overture preceding it, as well as its beautiful arrangement); Naar Hayisi (one of my all-time favorite tunes – and for a real Sefirah treat, check out Kol Achai’s INCREDIBLE a capella version); and Hinei Anochi, Habein Yakir Li and Me’ein Olam Haba – all standards. They are known and sung across the Jewish world – reaching from the very secular to the very frum. Somehow, Abie touched deep into the neshama of Kalal Yisrael with this album.
(*****) Vol. 4: After a ten year hiatus, D’veykus 4 came out and hit the Jewish music world like a storm. The updated arrangements in this case came synthesized, but we can look past them, as they are elegantly performed. (Of course, it would have been better had it been live, but given the synth, they did a very good job.) And Hamalach became the song of the decade. Another album, another all-timer. It really is remarkable how many of Abie’s tunes have become world-famous in so few recordings. But this masterpiece of an album also includes the brilliant Ani Maamin – Hu Borei (could you believe someone wrote an Ani Maamin from one of the other 12?!), the stunning Bo’i Vesholom, and the wonderful Sholom Rav, Mi Von Siach and Shema Koleinu. Not a weak link on the entire album.
(****) Vol. 5: Volume 5 moved upwards with regards to the arrangements, but neither this album, nor Vol. 6 achieved the fame that albums 1-4 did. The incredibly talented Yaron Gershovsky took over the arrangements, with great success. The Overture, as always, is well crafted and sweet. And then the gorgeous Sholom Aleichem begins – in a cappella. The feeling is of a calm Shabbos table, with the orchestra invited almost as an afterthought – albeit a beautiful afterthought. Another striking feature of this album is the gentle piano that both begins and ends the album – on the soothing Al Tira Yaakov. And the jazzy, playful Siman Tov (Piamenta styled?) along with the Yaron Gershovsky power piano solo is a real highlight. Lo Sevoshi is an underrated classic march. The only low point is Rachem – which is dramatic and overdone. So why does this album only get four stars? Well, it’s a great album, but the majority of the songs are only average. It’s still a beautiful production.
(***) Vol. 6: This album is an extension of 5 – similar highlights, with the same basic “problem” (which, of course, is not really a problem). Orchestral arrangements (by Leib Yaakov Rigler) and some wonderful tunes – Yehi Shalom and Lama Lanetzach are the top two. Lama, however, extends itself for a bit too long, and the cry of “Oy!” when it speeds up is rather cheesy. But the majority of the songs are average, with very good arrangements. This is a sweet album; however it seems like it was slightly over-arranged. Don’t get me wrong – by no means is it weak; it just does not have the continuous listening power that, for example. #4 and #5 have.
Journeys continues what Megama began – folksy English songs with sweet and empowering Jewish messages. Journeys was directly inspired by Megama, and Abie incorporated Moshe Yess into three of the four Journeys albums. Abie and Yess are joined by a number of the vocalists featured on D’veykus, as well as Dov Levine and Lev Tahor, with a few guests tossed in (MBD, Schwekey, Piamenta and others). Once again, a list of English classics from Jewish music would feature far more Abie songs than one would expect, purely based on his album output. But you would have to say that Abie’s neshama runneth pretty deep, as again, what songbook could be rightfully put together without including Neshomoleh, It’s Time to Say Good Shabbos, or Ride the Train?
(***) Vol. 1: Abie’s first foray into the world of English lyrics was a triumphant success. Journeys 1 features the touching (The Place Where I Belong, Rebbe Akiva), the whimsical (Ninth Man!, The Shadchan) and the inspiring (Time to Say Good Shabbos, No Place Like Home). The haunting Conversation in the Womb never really touched me until I heard it redone by Jerry Wicentowski – a frum Jew and bluegrass singer, as he performed it exquisitely on his (secular) album called “Lucky Break”. On that album, it is given the professional, authentic country feel that Abie would only later introduce to Journeys 4. (Check out www.luckybreak.us. Unfortunately, you can’t hear the performance of it there, but you can listen to his pretty Zemiros performances.) Two songs on this album, however, are simply shallow – It Had to be Hashem and It Must Have Been a Miracle. Both of them, with themes too similar to each other in the first place, would fit better on a children’s album.
(***) Vol. 2: The series is continued admirably, with even better songs than on the previous album. This album wilts occasionally from the arrangements, but once again, the lyrics are just awesome: The heartbreaking Memories (although seriously overshadowed by the magnificent MBD/Avraham Fried duet on the Ohel concert) and Teardrop; the poignant Ride the Train and The Kite; the societal jab in the Wedding Song. Ilu Finu is a song that should have been taken to the next level. With a serious musical arrangement going on, it could really be out of this world. As it is, the intricate harmonies piling on at the end is just stunning. Yismach Moshe is in Yiddish – the only non-English song in the entire series, but it makes the cut as a pretty filler tune that fits into the totality of the album. The two ho-hum songs are Yankel and Rebbe of Lublin. As much as I love Moshe Yess, I think the arrangements really did him in with the Rebbe of Lublin. That’s besides the fact that the story in question, is not about the Rebbe of Lublin – as the liner notes make clear, it’s a story about R’ Zushe of Anipoli. Go figure. And Yankel, as sweet as the story is, the tune doesn’t present it that well.
(****) Vol. 3: At this point, an interesting philosophical debate comes up: Are songs, lyrically and musically, more important than the arrangements, or do the arrangements make the songs that much better? I think the answer is whether you’re listening to the song on the album or on Ipod shuffle. The reason why I raise this point is because Journeys 3 has lesser songs than 1 or 2, but 3 is just easier to listen to. On the other hand, more individual songs from 1 and 2 make me turn the volume up than from 3. Whatever the case, Journeys 3 has an updated arrangement, which has its ups and downs. The good: Yerushalayim is gorgeous. The mix of voices, the harmonies along with the beautiful lyrics that makes you pine for Jerusalem stone all make this a magnificent production. Joe DiMaggio’s card makes this baseball fan’s heart smile – even though I’m a proud Red Sox fan (born and bred in New England). Lulay Soroscha is very pretty, with some really nice lyrics. And I love the acoustic Yossi Piamenta on Kavei. But – don’t kill me – if you’re going to have a flute in the arrangements in any case, why isn’t Avi there? The Atheist Convention is a wonderful song – and that’s despite the somewhat lame arrangements. I absolutely love it – it’s a song I sing at the Shabbos table often. But the arrangements are too “cutesy” – they sound like they came from a Sesame Street soundtrack, and that takes some of the bite out of the song. And likewise, the over-reliance on the synthesizers on Yeshivesher Reid and We’ve Got the Music drops those songs a bit. All in all, though, this is a very good album.
(*****) Vol. 4: Journeys 4 broke out of the arrangements issues, with a spectacular album. The lyrics are again top notch, with Man from Vilna, Ninth Man II, Dreams Come True (a fantastic redone rendition, after the flat performance of the song by Diaspora Yeshiva Band on the Diaspora Reunion), and Little Tree leading the way. Shwekey’s performance on Mama Rochel is quite noteworthy; while in general I’m not a fan of Shwekey’s, he really outdid himself here. The second tier of songs are just as good; The Cat Ate the Canary, Sfashkenaz and The Band are fun while prodding deep at societal ills. The real stroke of genius was to use an authentic country singer for Country Boy, rather than another immitation. Here’s to the next Journeys album!
Lev V’nefesh and Aish are siblings. They’re both on the pop side of things; closer to standard Jewish music. Both have produced classics, yet both have their weaknesses. At the end of the day, both have important additions to the world of Jewish music.
(**) Vol. 1: Any album that produces a song as popular as Acheinu should be successful. While the rest of the album can get rather ho-hum, it does have some other good moments. Uvenei is good, and from there you drop a few levels to Venismach and A Jewel in the Crown. But Chasal we already know from Journeys 1; and Mimkomacha, Ki Hinei and Lo Omus are just way too similar to each other. In total, this album doesn’t add up very well, and ends up as a bit below average.
(*) Vol. 2: This one takes the lacks of the previous Lev V’nefesh and drops them even further. Among other things, I don’t like the collection of soloists together. I don’t think they compliment each other very well. But more importantly, there is no particular song that’s particularly good. The best I can go with is Adon Olam. It seems like this was the very first Abie album that did not produce a classic or hit of any type.
(****) Vol. 1: Here; Abie introduced fellow Torontonian Shlomo Simcha into his work. Shlomo Simcha adds vocal power and a certain persona that may have been missing on Lev V’nefesh. Whatever the case, Abie did better composing, and teamed up with Boruch Levine (and others) for some more massive hits, starting with Mi Adir and Habeit, and moving along to Ilan Ilan and Meheiroh Hashem. The fast tunes are better as well, Hinei Lo Yonum and Vayehi Bishurun leading the charge. The arrangements, however, aren’t great. There’s an over-reliance on certain instruments (depending on the song), and rather than assisting the song, the music often getting in the way. A few examples: the oboe on Habeit interrupts the momentum of the song just prior to where the song picks up speed. The oboe on Yedid Nefesh – eegh. And the intro to Meheiroh Hashem goes on forever. Despite all that, good album.
(****) Vol. 2: Aish 2 picked up the speed – musically, the arrangements here are far better than on Aish 1. The totality of the CD is better than Aish 1, without the classics or major hits. Sadly, Shlomo Simcha seems to have lost power in his voice, as he seems to “cheat” a bit without really going for the gusto. Leibel Storch joins the crew for another beautiful and talented voice – he shines particularly well on Lo Sevoshi. This is a very good album; while there may not be any classics, it has a full cast of elegant songs – led by Birkas Habayis and Hinei Anochi. Retzei, however, goes back to the Lev V’nefesh days of songs that went nowhere.
(*) Made in Canada: I thought this was going to be a continuation of the Aish series, with the cover proclaiming “Abie Rotenberg and Shlomo Simcha”. Instead it was warmed-up goulash from a few weeks ago. Nothing new; nothing particularly good; nothing of Abie’s; awful arrangements. This was one of the biggest disappointments I have had when buying a CD.
(*****) Abie’s HASC Songs: Rotenberg’s work with HASC deserves a mention of its own. Starting with the first performance of the mind-blowing Who Am I, which received a rousing ovation afterwards, to Small Piece of Heaven and Candles – this is actually a brilliant collection of songs. Why, pray tell, hasn’t HASC produced all these songs in one collection? You would think it would succeed better than their Best Of series, especially if they put the work into it to rework the songs a bit (for example, Candles can be split in half).
Best Group: I’d have to say D’veykus, if only for the fact that they’re the most proficient and fairly steady with regards to artists being involved.
Best Album: This is particularly difficult, when you look at the varying styles over thirty five or so years, but just crudely, I’d have to pick Journeys 4 for the best all-around album, and D’veykus 3 as the best classic album. (D’veykus 4 would have trumped
Journeys 4, if not for the synth.)
Best arranged (vocals and instruments) album: D’veykus 5. Simply gorgeous.
Best HASC Song: Either Who Am I or Small Piece of Heaven
Best English Song: I’m going to go with Memories. Or Neshomoleh. Or… ARGH!
Best Classic: Naar Hayisi is my personal favorite; but go ahead, fight over Hamalach or Acheinu. :-)