wandering in the religion of hippiedom
One World Group – “Connecting to the Infinite”
by Matthue Roth
There’s a whole cult of people who want to turn celebrated rabbi, scholar, and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach into the next Pink Floyd. Although Reb Shlomo composed literally thousands of songs in his lifetime, and turned on tens of thousands of people to Judaism who were wandering in the religion of hippiedom and sixties-ana, there’s a tendency to ignore the more intellectual side of his rabbinate, and to equate the mass appeal of his niggunim and in-the-round songs with, say, Jimi Hendrix—or, to frighten it up a little, Carlos Santana. Carlebach was a gifted songwriter and a talented performer, not a soft-rock musician to be paired with the likes of ** and the Matchbox 20 singer.
That said, the cover art of Connecting to the Infinite—which bears a starry tapestry and pot-inspired Gelfling fonts—didn’t bode well for me.
As far as instrumental adaptations of Hasidic melodies, though, you could be batting a lot worse. One World Group’s Ray Thomas strives to freshen up the instrumentation with horn sections, percussion trills, transitions between acoustic and electric instruments that keep the songs moving, and never linger too long on any particular part. In other words, you won’t be hearing the same line over and over again a million times, which is the particular danger associated in adapting to instruments a vocals-only song which is exactly that.
The first track, “Am Yisroel Chai,” is a noodling, ambient piece that jumps from piano to spaced-out sounds and horn lines. It’s actually a pretty creative arrangement, easily the most experimental piece on the album—and the one that transitions the most smoothly from genre to genre, flowing from a Simply Red-like easy-listening sound into banjo and piano jazz. The soft reggae of “Ei’ Lecha” is bothersome in its simplicity and unimaginative adaptation—the truth is, it’s not so much reggae as it is listening to “No Woman, No Cry” and trying to turn a Shlomo song into that. You can almost predict the exact second that the wailing organ will come in. The most triumphant piece on this recording, however, is probably their version of “L’chu Neranena,” which combines the slow, dirgey sanctity of Shlomo’s most spiritual, rhythmic songwriting with pleasantly weird-sounding synthesizers and slow, strummed guitars, building to a joyful, jubilant climax which feels earned.
There are a few bumps in One World Group’s adaptations, but from dreariness less than outright bad-sounding-ness. When it trips, it still knows how to sound good, like a Timbaland hit-machine of the Jewish instrumental world.