Talk about an article that has been a long time in the making! The first version, actually written up for the early stages of this website, was lost after a site crash. A second version was lost after a personal computer crash. And in the meantime, MBD announced Kissifim would be his final album (although Wikipedia says he has said otherwise), and I slowly collected his entire discography.
It’s hard to relisten to albums that were the soundtrack of your childhood without being biased to some degree. But that’s what had to be done here. There were songs that I loved that now I wrinkle my nose at, and songs that I never really paid attention to that deserved a lot more respect. Going through the entire list, though, gives you a deeper appreciation for the life work of the king of Chassidic music.
Mordechai Ben David – heir to one of the pre-eminent cantors of the first generation of Jewish music, master of musical emotion, and the most prolific recording artist in the Jewish music world. He has 32 albums to his name (gematria of Lev, or hartz), plus three collections. He took old niggunim, composed and produced new ones, and presented us with some of the great uber-hits in the Jewish music world. MBD also appeared on dozens of other albums, beginning with the JEP (with the classic hit Someday), and a collection of all those random songs on various titles would fill another three discs. You can find a list of those guest appearances here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mordechai_Ben_David. (If I had all of those songs, I’d love to do a review of them on the side – maybe that will be my next collecting effort.) He’s also been the face of the industry for many long years. Mordechai Ben David will always retain the title of king, and as he was once blessed, may he continue to bring joy to all Jews across the world until Moshiach comes.
(For clarity’s sake – the numbers in parentheses next to a song refers to the number of times those lyrics have been used for a song.)
Mordechai Ben David Werdyger Sings Original Chassidic Niggunim: (***) 1973:
This ancient album is fairly typical of its era – screechy winds and a drum kit that consists of at most three pieces. Yeesh – the arrangements as old as the hills and twice as dusty. But that’s not really why we’re listening to this album – look, it’s MBD we’re talking about. And his voice is as magical as it ever was. The main question you may ask, though, is there any song of value on this forgotten album? And to that, the answer is an emphatic yes – Ki Heim (#1) is a swell swing piece, still standing timelessly, and MBD lets it out with grace – so much so, that it still remains enjoyable. Karov Hashem is your typical beat-y tune, and the slow and purposeful Ani Maamin (#1) is MBD’s first real crooner. Yiboneh is a simple but fine song as well (I’ll admit to enjoying the flute in the arrangement). Some of the other songs are a bit, well shvach (Uv’nei Yerushalayim is a bit corny, and I won’t go for the cantoral/swing attempt in Ata Chonein – who put those genres together in one song?!), but chalk it all up to the era. But that’s what makes it fun to listen to – okay, not with speakers blaring out of your car, but for historical purposes. And besides, you do have the very first instrumental solos in Jewish music – and those wouldn’t reappear on a Jewish music record for quite a while.
Now here’s a job for someone – take these recordings and fit some new arrangements over ‘em. There really is what to work with here…
But if you were living in the ‘70’s and you heard that incredible voice? Chances are, you were going to pick up the next record. Big time.
Hineni: (*****) 1974: What a wonderful album! Even forty years later, anyone can sit back and enjoy the gorgeous power and youthful beauty of MBD’s voice, alongside a full orchestral arrangement. The tunes are all extremely well selected, with no duds whatsoever. Of noteworthy mention are the classic Shema Yisrael and Ki Lo Yitosh, but the rest of the album stacks up with those, even if many of the other songs are not as renowned. It is no surprise that after an album like this MBD became the premier Jewish music vocalist – go ahead; revel in the emotion of Keili Keili (#1). If you listen closely, you may detect a flaw or two in the timing, but it does not hinder the listening pleasure at all. The occasional fake Israeli accent is clunky, but manageable. The arrangements are balanced and full, leaning primarily on light strings and brass, with plenty of mixes of styles – like the simple acoustic guitar on Achas Shoalti (#1), the honky-tonk piano on Hinei (#1) and elsewhere, the organ intro to Shema Yisrael (do I sense irony here?) – to keep things interesting. The cross-harmonies in Shema Hashem are also just beautiful. While I’m no drums maven, I’ve always enjoyed the drums here; they feel complete and alive. As for the title track Hineni, its lyrics could have used some polish (“Let the words of the Torah be your navigational code” – not so poetic, is it?). It is nonetheless a classic; mainly due to the beautiful tune and even more impressive performance. This moving, eidel, and well-crafted album has aged well.
Neshama Soul: (****) 1975: Mona Rosenblum enters the arrangement arena, with his flair for the dramatic. Neshama Soul has plenty of that, with big sound and new ideas. While none of the songs can be classified as classics, there’s plenty to listen to on this daring record. It opens big, with the bold and brash Va’ani Tefilati (#1) (yes, it was recorded in Israel, so we go back to the faux-Sefardic accent) in which Mordechai really unleashes his vocal power. We see a very Israeli theme running through it, with four songs mentioning peace and two referring to war. Title track Neshama Soul has a really cool groove running through – listen carefully to the 70’s synth in the background. The lyrics start wonderfully, but not flawlessly: the word Neshama is feminine, not masculine, and the morbid war talk darkens the song. The bass/drums intro combined with the reverb rhythm guitar on Yamin Usmol was way ahead of its time in the Jewish music world, and Va’Anachnu Lo Neda presents more of MBD’s patented emotional thrust, with full throttle engaged by the finale. MBD’s first lyrics in Ivrit is also his first tune ripped off, as the somewhat naïve Shir Shel Shalom was originally Bobby Vinton’s “My Melody of Love”. MBD was certainly getting bolder with his voice, as you can hear with the falsetto Yedid Nefesh (#1) and the mini cantorial move on Oseh Shalom. In any case, the album gets high marks for creativity and passion alone.
I’d Rather Pray and Sing: (***) 1977: The sharp trumpets of Vechol Hachaim march us into the next album. MBD didn’t quite match this offering up with the past two records, but he produced a pleasant album nonetheless. Tops on this record are the beautiful waltz Oidchoh, the stirring Koh Ribon (#1) with its sweet violin arrangement – Yisrael Lamm really worked those strings on this album to good effect – and the excellent title track. When it comes to English songs, I’d Rather Pray and Sing is much better than Hineni, being more complete lyrically. We also get MBD’s first Yiddish song, Eizehi Mekoimon, a stirring piece on Korbanos, which he sings with apparent emotion amid some more pretty strings. The rest of the album is fairly average, but beautiful nonetheless.
Songs of Rosh Hashana: (**1/2) 1979: MBD collaborates with Suki and Ding for the first time, but it doesn’t come off that well. The arrangements are dated and stale. The “Montreal Yeshiva Boys” choir has an amateur sound. Bird of Hope (which MBD sings well) makes no sense whatsoever: Birds falling out of the sky during Kol Nidrei? The chazzan interrupting Kol Nidrei to take note of the “avian flew”? Whatever. The chorus, however, is good. The album does have some good in it: he sings Carlebach’s Tov Lehodos with the lyrics Vechol Maaminim nicely; Achas Shoalti (#2), Vehaya Bayom Hahu and the old-time (Holocaust era) classic Yiddish melody Habeit Mishomayim are sung well, but that’s really it for the good songs. The uplifting Modzhitzer march Ein Kitzva is unfortunately tossed into a medley, when it should have been given its own spot in the sun, but MBD gives it a good performance in any case. Unfortunately, other songs (Berosh Hashana #1, Vatiten, etc.) are sung pretty lackadaisically. At the end of the day, though, it’s that distracting musical accompaniment that is what does this album in.
Moshiach is Coming Soon: (***) 1980: With his next offering, MBD decides to return to the style of Rather Pray. This record, however, does not have the sound quality that the earlier records do. It also features a decent, but underwhelming arrangement. The song choice is standard, with Eliyahu (sung brilliantly on HASC 3) and Tzur Mishelo (#1) being the two most well known. We have two English songs, and while the title track is a bit overwrought, Candles is a good piece of work, and perhaps even a bit underrated. Bloz Dem Shofar is the album’s Yiddish track, and Mordche sings it with gusto. I love the emotive expression on the last rendition of the chorus of Rachem (#1) (which oddly follows Tzur Mishelo, considering that these words are part of that zemer), a good song in its own right. And he milks Carlebach’s Uvau Ha’ovdim for all its got.
Memories: (**) 1981: What followed next would be three below-average recordings – two studio and one live. The two studio albums have similar arrangements, and therein lay their problem. Squeaky and sharp horns and violins were apparently the sound of the day. (The first galloping notes of Shevach and Shabbos in Feld must have been cut and pasted to or from Avraham Fried’s Emes.) Way too circus-like across the board just makes this difficult to listen to, despite MBD’s heroic vocal efforts. Memories is the weaker of the two, simply because of lower quality material – two morbid songs in Yivoda and Al Naharos Bavel (the latter being one of MBD’s rare attempts at chazanus) counteract the two best songs on the albums, Memories and the highly underrated and almost unknown So Much Closer. (Man, I wish he rereleased that song on The English Collection!) Shevach is a decent fast number, and Hinei Onoichi is a nice Hollywood style waltz, but the rest is… meh.
Mordechai Ben David Live: (**) 1981:
The first of MBD’s live recordings, this oldie has also been dropped from the reissue list. The reason is obvious – this style of concert is so foreign to the elaborate productions that we see nowadays. Instead of the glamour and shtick, it’s simplistic yet hartzig. The recording quality is obviously low. Three of its songs (Min Hametzar, Vekareiv Pezureinu and Yehi Hachodesh) are not found on any other of MBD’s records. The energetic Yehi Hachodesh was picked up more recently by Dedi, on Omnom. Min Hameitzar is a truly emotional performance – MBD davens the words as he belts them out with obvious and profound intent. Vekarev Pezureinu is a classic, and I presume this is not its first appearance somewhere. Anyone know where from? It’s sung with the energy that befits it.
The other 6 songs (Eliyahu Hanavi – from Moshiach is Coming Soon; Va’ani – from Neshama Soul; Od Yishama – Hineni; Odcha and Rather Pray from that album; and Someday, which MBD had sung on JEP’s album of that name) stick to the original basic arrangements, so there ain’t that much different than the originals, other than the exact emphasis MBD delivers. The most truly unique section is his intro to OdYishama (from Hineni), which he turns into an unbridled chazzonishe shtick that seems to get the crowd going.
Old? Yes. Worthwhile? Hmm. I think some people will find it somewhat incomprehensible. But as with MBD #1, it’s historic, and that’s what counts.
Ich Hob Gevart: (**) 1982: The hidden gem of this record – a compilation of the songs of Yiddish wordmeister R’ Yom Tov Ehrlich, akin to Avraham Fried’stwo Yiddish Gems – is the title track, which is just outstanding. Its phenomenal lyrics are squeezed out emotionally in this heartfelt rendition, and the arrangements are complimentary. Vayechulu is another sweet song, while the opening track, Hinei (#2), is simply overload on the attempt at modernization. Three consecutive songs that speak of Shabbos get a bit boring conceptually, especially when common rhymes are repeated. The arrangements have too much focus on the violins, and the boys choir is again backyard. Somehow it seems that MBD left all of Ehrlich’s good songs for Fried. This album is left lacking too much.
But with all our criticism of the end of the ’70’s, there’s absolutely beautiful music coming up in the next decade!
(Part 2 can be found here.)