We Can Rise!
By Matthue Roth
At the (ahem) Shemspeed opening party, Chana Rothman, in the middle of her set, launched into a jam that featured her backing bassist and drummer playing a tight, bouncing dance track, a young woman in a tall, steep turban breakdancing, and the ubiquitous MC Shir-Yaakov beatboxing up a storm.
That version of the song isn’t on “We Can Rise,” the singer-songwriter’s debut album, but the feeling of it’s all over the record — giddy, ebullient, religious and irreverent pop songs that feel like a bunch of friends locked in a living room and having a really good conversation, only with instruments instead of words. Tinges of reggae, hip-hop and folk filter in and out of the songs, but they aren’t rock songs or reggae songs — at least, not in the way we know them.
Her lyrics, always well-meaning, sometimes fall flat; as Mos Def and Arrested Development know, the price of positive music is that, sometimes, you can’t escape without getting caught on a cliché or two. One of Rothman’s greatest strengths, though, is her ability to embrace the clichés and own them when she sings them, turning mottos from both Jewish prayers the and that capital-m Movement into personal anthems.
But the album’s centerpiece is a tiny, delicate song, with barely any overdubbed instrumentation and barely any reference to Judaism, Jah, or any style of music — folk, maybe?, but that’s only because there’s scarcely an instrument except an acoustic guitar. “How did the present become the past?” Chana sings, and her voice, usually so resonant and strong, is stricken, conveys a sudden inconfidence in Nature, a flicker of regret that the world around her is changing, and she doesn’t like it.
Last night, I interviewed the writer Dara Horn for another publication. (Her novel The World to Come is a life-transforming book, and you should go and buy it now.) In her book, the characters aren’t one religious denomination or another — by the end, you’re still not sure whether they’re Orthodox or Reform. She told me how she wanted to create a place that wasn’t prescriptive, but descriptive, where Judaism was what we did rather than simply what we called things.
That’s what Chana Rothman’s songs are like. Feelings rather than words, statements rather than movements…and, just, really good songs.
One final note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cover and interior art which, notebook-style, runs over the pages with dreamy little spirals of fantasy drawings, roots and flowers that struggle to pop up. (It’s done by Mat Tonti, who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m doing a comic book with — but it’s still pretty freaking awesome.)