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Matisyahu - Youth Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    JDub/Or/Epic
reviewed by:    Roger Steffens

ImageMatisyahu, Hebrew for Matthew, may just be the most improbable reggae star since the emergence of Yellowman, the slack albino rapper who gained great fame nearly a quarter of a century ago. Take, for example, last winter, when following a hugely successful sold-out show in Jerusalem, he was joined offstage by a hundred male fans. But instead of passing around spliffs and Red Stripes, the throng gathered on a balcony to pray with the bearded Hasid.

His pop Top 40 Live at Stubbs album also spent many weeks at the top of Billboard’s reggae chart. L.A.’s KROQ boasted that his “King Without a Crown” was a song they discovered, but cross-town rival upstart Indie 103, home to ex-Pistol Steve Jones, was on the record many months earlier. Its biggest booster there was “Native Wayne” Jobson on his “Reggae Smoke-In” broadcast Sundays 6-8 PM, and Jobson deserves major credit for Matis’ West Coast success, exposing him to that part of the young rock audience willing to take a step a bit to the left.

But the artist has attracted as many detractors as champions. Witness the view of U.K. music crank/provacateur Steve Barrow: “It just proves that anything can be sold … People in Los Angeles who rate him are surely just embracing the ‘next big thing,’ like they do every week there … I have even less interest in these types of copycat artists than I have in any other U.S.-based religious nutcases. Music first, religion last…”
Black media activist Sufia Giza wrote a scathing review of Matis’ sizzling performance at the Bob Marley Day/RaggaMuffins Festival in Long Beach last February. Her posting for “Reggae Review” was headlined “Matisya WHO???” Claiming “… mainstream media propagandists, in particular the L.A. Times, attempt to aid in the co-opting of black music by christening a new Elvis for the world of reggae,” she disregarded his ebulliently-received jack-in-the-box performance and opined, “I wasn’t that impressed. No real irie vibes. No signature drum ‘n’ bass, but more like rock and roll musicians trying to play reggae music. Ya see, they knew enough of the rhetoric, are able to copy the rhythm, can mimic the movement and imitate the emotion, but it’s the passion that’s missin’. I ain’t knockin’ him, I just don’t get it ... no up and coming, still wet behind the ears ‘culture bandit’ is going to steal
our musical legacy.”

World-renowned French reggae maven Bruno Blum (aka Doc Reggae) suggests Ms. Giza “is taking it a bit too far, but I feel she’s basically right … I’m afraid that the Matisyahu hype might not go very far. The worst thing would be witnessing Matisyahu’s success being felt as a threat to genuine Jamaican/African American music, which [an L.A. Times] story clearly shows is already happening, thus building into another black/white or Muslim/Jew antagonism, feeding more hatred and violence. Considering the state of mind in U.S. hip hop circles, I’m afraid that’s just what might happen, and anti-Semitism might therefore well be the next trend in dancehall, after all it’s about the only wrong thing they haven’t yet deejayed about. Let’s cross our fingers and hope it won’t happen.”

Wrote Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times review of Matisyahu’s Hammerstein Ballroom performance on March 6: “The record is dull, the concert was often worse.” Commenting on his Lubavitcher’s garb, Sanneh observed, “He looks like an anomaly, but if you think of him as a white pop star drawing from a black musical tradition, then he may seem like a more familiar figure,” and compared him to Barrington Levy and the six-foot-six-above-sea-level antic toaster, Eek-a-Mouse.

A week later, Ben Sisario reported in the same paper that the artist had fired his managers, with whom he had mapped out his career four years earlier. A lawsuit was predicted, and a sense of betrayal was obvious in the statements of his now-dismissed discoverers.

The attitude toward the lanky singer by the (non-Jewish-owned) L.A. Times was almost unprecedented in its coverage. On Feb. 12, the weekend before the 25th Long Beach Marley birthday festival (which he was headlining), the Sunday Times ran a full-page article, with a huge picture of Matisyahu, claiming he had invented a new genre of “Hasidic reggae.” On April 27, another prominent big-up appeared in the Times’ “In The Spotlight” feature, his picture taking up sixty percent of the tabloid page, promoting his upcoming appearance (alongside dozens of other artists) at the Coachella Festival. In the aftermath of Coachella, Matisyahu’s image was used once again in the Times’ review.

Matis’ new album Youth erupted at #4 on the pop charts with 119,000 copies sold its first week, making it the first putative reggae album to debut that high. (The latest releases by Damian Marley and Sean Paul came in at #8 and #7 respectively.) But it sank almost immediately. My sources at the gigantic Amoeba Music store in Hollywood report that they’re still selling far more of the live album than the new one, not a good sign.

So – what about this album? The overall impression is of lightness, and Ms. Giza’s charge of “passionless” often seems accurate.

The opening track, “Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth,” is a song of prophecy and cultural appropriation, although who is borrowing from whom is left to the listener’s own prejudices. Matisyahu chants, “Fire descends from on high in the shape of a lion,” and makes mention of Mount Zion in the same breath. The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah is the Rasta God, Haile Selassie’s title. The two faiths overlap from the opening words of the album.

Next, the title track features a singjay vocal, and is addressed to the ”Young man – the power’s in your hands” to “Storm the halls of vanity” and “You better make the right move/You got the freedom to choose!” With a buzz saw electric guitar solo, it leaves roots reggae in the lurch and appeals to the funked up speed-fueled energy of “youth.” It devolves into a psychedelic outro, and one half expects a sitar to interrupt.

“Time of Your Song” borrows Bob Marley’s patented “a yuga yuga yo” for a rap that laments “Got the radio, but there’s nothing playing.” It mixes dub and a tinkly nursery riff, highlighted by a bass-mimicking scat. “Dispatch the Troops” is straight-out reggae with a gallopy appeal, sending out Sting’s SOS, and quoting Ini Kamoze’s “Call the Police,” calling on the children to “rebuild the temple, jumping up and down, up in a circle,” in the style of athletic terpsichore cherished by his co-religionists.

“Indestructible” admonishes to “fear nobody but His Majesty.” But it’s not Selassie to which he refers, but the very Lord Himself, which to most Rasta is one and the same manifestation. Here he’s trying to have it both ways again. “What I’m Fighting For” begins like an outtake from Neil Young’s Harvest, all acoustic guitar and violin. “To Zion we roam,” he declares. Repatriation, another common theme in Rasta music, is his goal as he exhorts the “sons and daughters of Abraham” to unite the past in a return to the Holy Land.

As L.A. Times music critic (and my neighbor in Echo Park) Richard Cromelin points out, the Jewish concern of Matisyahu’s lyrics comes explicit and in your face. “Jerusalem” recalls the Holocaust vividly: “Burned in the oven in this century/And the gas tried to choke but it couldn’t choke me.” His rap is the voice of the Diaspora remembering: “Jerusalem, if I forget you/Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.” The Temple must be rebuilt, a desire he shares with fundamentalist Christians anxious to bring about the Apocalyptic “Rapture” that such a reconstruction would supposedly trigger.

“WP” commences like the theme song of the Prince of White Plains, rapped in a ceh’in faux-slum slur, before it gets all spooky and Steppenwolfy, “trapped in the elevator [13th Floor?] of your mind.” Then someone speaks of a time when there is no more war, maybe the Rebbe himself, in a voice that’s a hoarse cross between the two Carloses: Santana and Castaneda, with a touch of the borscht belt thrown in for authenticity.

“Shalom/Saalam,” a brief and pretty lute-like instrumental snippet, serves as a bridge to a soft singjay meditation on a “Late Night in Zion,” roaming the
streets of Jerusalem in darkness, realizing he’s “just a man.” “Unique is My Dove” is formula American reggae praising, “one woman for me, half of my soul.”

“Ancient Lullaby” has a choir-boy vocal over a Paul Simonish rolling South African riddim that becomes progressively more rockified, climaxing in a lengthy drum solo – an often lovely track that surveys the percussive world’s interplay. The collection closes with “King Without a Crown,” a Cream-style rave-up crowd-pleaser that was the standout track on the live album.

I was asked to bring Matisyahu on stage at the Long Beach Marley Day Fest last February, and stood amazed as he was greeted with one of the most enthusiastic responses I’ve seen in that 25-year event’s history. His ovation at the end, to an absolutely jam-packed throng, was just as strong. It was also more than a bit unnerving and inexplicable, considering his religion’s fear of women coming physically anywhere near men, that the front ranks were mostly young white girls screaming at him in near-sexual frenzy.

My advice? Save your money, Matis, and enjoy it while you can. The music biz odds suggest strongly, if Youth is your best shot, that you’ll likely be heading for the clubhouse with Vanilla Ice to reminisce about the days of glory, gone too soon.

This collection of raps and thin, reedy vocals is given fairly minimal production by Bill Laswell, giving the instruments a chance to breathe. Matisyahu’s band, a trio of drums, bass and guitar, serves him well in a variety of musical styles that showcase their virtuosity. Generic reggae dub effects are used sparingly. It’s clean, but its in-the-middle Americanized mix is not necessarily a help to distinguish it from dozens of other U.S.-based reggae-influenced productions.

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