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Flying Their Freak Flags

Musicians doing what feels right

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Blanket Statementstein is a band that shouldn’t work as well as it does. When you put 12 hippies on stage, you don’t expect them to play their instruments in sync, much less make actual music. Not even their name makes sense.

Collected on stage, the band resembles the kitchen of a Manhattan apartment during a particularly crowded party. But there must be some Nightmare Before Christmas-like magic that makes everything turn out perfectly at the last second. The violinist in the knee-high cowboy boots is perfectly in time with the drummer, for whom Animal the Muppet is probably not only a musical guide but a fashion icon.

Through it all, lead singer Ahron Moeller—who sometimes wears a junior high school gym uniform, and sometimes dresses as Alec from A Clockwork Orange—acts as a barely-in-control MC, introducing the numbers with random stream-of-consciousness thoughts as well as occasionally kicking a rhyme or a hip-hop verse.

Blanket Statementstein
Blanket Statementstein

The band’s self-titled album documents Blanket Statementstein’s particular brand of insanity. Some of their quirks just don’t translate to disc (Moeller’s wardrobe, for example), but the musical flightiness, the barely-held-together jams, and the shouted group choruses more than make up for it. I’m not going to lie: this is a weird record. Each of its 14 songs is different from the others, and not just a little—due in part to which musicians happened to show up for recording sessions, but also to the band’s eclectic sensibilities. Take, for instance, the song “Ancestor, which starts with a testimony to the singer’s girlfriend’s, uh, grandmother (“I fell in love with her ancestor/I know it’s crazy but it’s all I got/and it’s creepy how she shakes and rocks ) and builds up to the typically juvenile chorus: “Grandma love/grandma love/give me peace from above. Lyrically, Moeller plays it straight, spouting verse after verse without double meaning or irony. The jam that’s going on behind him—guitar, organ, drums, and accordion—is tight and melodic, like the Grateful Dead on a particularly poppy day, or Wilco in a free-spirited mood.

The rest of the album is just as quirky. “Empathize Your Thighs” has an ’80s big-beat vibe with ’70s disco falsetto vocals. “Hippies Need Money for Weed,” while it probably won’t actually get anyone money for weed or anything else, has a slow simmering beat that would be perfect for a lazy late-night tango. “Never Stress” features guest vocalist Shir Yaakov freestyling with the Blanket singers to a hip-hop loop, and “G-Chulent” is a funked-up ode extolling the virtues of everyone’s favorite slow-cooked bean stew.

Listen to “G-Chulent” by Blanket Statemenstein

Listen to “Ancestor” by Blanket Statemenstein

Jewish support for Obama came in many forms during his campaign, ranging from Sarah Silverman’s viral video comparing old Jews to young black men to 300 rabbis who started a Web site to get positive press for Obama (by soliciting press for themselves).

Y-Love

The Orthodox rapper Y-Love has never minced words about his respect for the president-elect. Y-Love is hard to pin down to a single agenda—he’s both a staunch supporter and critic of the state of Israel, Haredi in his social values, and liberal as a political thinker—but always has a cleanly thought-out reason for his stances, hinted at in his songs, and enunciated at length on his blog. His new single, “Change,” doesn’t directly celebrate Barack Hussein Obama; however, its title and its planned release (on Inauguration Day, with a logo and font that are suspiciously reminiscent of the president-elect’s campaign posters) are a good indication of his sympathies.

“The idea of the Obama-themed song actually came to [Y-Love's manager] Diwon, not to me,” Y-Love confesses. “The song ‘Change’ originally struck me as being a song more about the messianic redemption than anything going on in American politics.”

The collaboration solidified with the inclusion of DeScribe, an Australian MC and singer, who performs the first verse and the chorus. On his full-length album, last year’s This Is Babylon, Y-Love’s rhymes are brilliant, but at times loaded with too much discourse and not enough hooks; here, DeScribe breaks his words up nicely, and keeps the track from staying in one place for long. The MCs’ use of vocoder can be excessive, but a swift, gyrating club beat make “Change” an ideal sing-along. Hey, if even the Washington Post used Obama’s election to sell papers, then why shouldn’t some indie rappers cash in, too?


Listen to “Change” by Y-Love and DeScribe

“For a middle class white Jewish boy, I had fairly authentic initiation into hip-hop,” says Nosson Zand. “At 11 or 12 years old, I started hanging out with a friend who lived in the projects [in Boston, where Zand was raised]. He would bring me back to his place and we would play basketball and listen to music all day.” While in college, Zand became a baal teshuvah while honing his hip-hop skills. In 2006, he played the lead role in Song of David, a film about a yeshiva student who writes lyrics in the margins of his Talmud and freestyles on the roofs of buildings.

Nosson Zand
Nosson Zand

Now, at 27, Zand has just finished three months on the road performing with Matisyahu to support his own first official album, a five-song EP called The Return. He released the record at the suggestion of Matisyahu, who told Zand that he should have something for people to walk away with (this turned out to be good advice: “Matis told me that I was selling even more CDs than he was”). Last week, Zand entered the studio to start on his first proper full-length.

The beats on The Return are run-of-the-mill samples, overdramatic and head-nod-worthy, but Zand transforms them into actual songs. He matches the melody and the rhythm with rhymes that are staccato at times, fluid at others. On the title track, Zand’s flow bounces so naturally that it’s easier to dance to his words than to the beat. “The Fortress” is scaled-back, musically bleak, and lyrically aggressive, dispensing with vocal tricks in favor of straight rhymes. It doesn’t resemble pop-influenced artists like, well, Matisyahu, so much as alternative rappers like Atmosphere and Sage Francis who are more purely about the word.

On”Eye I Eye,” Zand tells the story of becoming religious—”For 23 years I was in and out of trouble/Taught my soul how to struggle, now I know how to struggle on a whole other leve”—in a way that’s not self-laudatory, neither denying nor glamorizing his former life.

Listen to “The Return” by Nosson Zand

Listen to “The Fortress” by Nosson Zand

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Flying Their Freak Flags

Musicians doing what feels right

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