Matisyahu – No Place to Be/Live in Israel DVD
By Matthue Roth
Remix albums and concert DVDs are often seen as a record company gimmick…mostly because they are. With little to no actual new material, they’ve developed an entirely new product, leaving the artist free to release a new new record in a few months, having hit up the consumer for twice as much product.
The deal with these albums and DVDs is, you get what you pay for–someone else’s take on an artist. In the case of No Place to Be, the post- Youth re-mix from neo-Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, it exploits both–and it’s actually not a bad package.
Paradoxically, mixing Matisyahu’s songs into more established and conventional, less jammy and freestyled beats has transformed his songs closer to songs. It’s work that veteran reggae producer Bill Laswell started on Youth, a record condemned by pretty much everyone for its too-poppy sound and its nonethnic cleansing of the reggae genre. But the fact is, Matisyahu gave reggae its first mainstream hit since, when? Shaggy? And, as far as cultural appropriators go, he can’t be any worse a role model than, say, Eminem. It does bother me more than a bit that there’s no dialogue about the cultures that created reggae (other than the shared values of love, peace, freedom and G-d) but maybe a #1 single is exactly what it takes to get the dialogue started?
Veteran reggae remix team Sly & Robbie’s takes on Matisyahu’s songs are exactly what you’d expect, and so are Laswell’s remixes–a few better than the album versions (“Warrior,” “Jerusalem”) and one or two pointless ones (the Swisha House mix of “Jerusalem,” which is basically a slowed-down version the original–why?). AdRock’s take on the title track of “Youth,” a fast, minimalist mix of Matisyahu’s lyrics with a fast drum beat and an accordion-like hook, is pretty much a page out of the Beastie Boys songbook–more than you’d expect it to be, at any rate–but sounds pretty damn good.
The track that’s most surprising, though, is Matisyahu’s take on the Police’s “Message in a Bottle”–at last, a reggae artist who’s whiter than Sting. Musically, it’s a pretty rote note-by-note rendition of the song, with Matis playing with the lyrics the same way he borrows lyrics from other pop songs. Derivative, maybe, but it’s pretty classic, and pretty inspired. At the core of Matis’s message is the idea that pop songs are all about love and celebration and that, alongside lovers and parties and one-night stands, we should maybe be celebrating G-d.
Matisyahu’s strength has always been his live show, which–no surprise–showcases his passion and his earnest lyrical delivery. The sometimes-excessive jamming and irritating guitar solos are highlighted less, and the bumping, jumping, and crowd monologues are worth seeing more than hearing. There’s also an acoustic segment, where Matis and his backup band give an intimate concert to what appears to be a crowd of tourists in an ancient ruin. It’s a little clichéd, of course, but going acoustic is a good move for this band.