A few months ago, I performed a Jewish cultural showcase, a variety show with somewhere around 20 different acts”a chick folksinger, a boy band, an Orthodox kid with big bushy payes doing poetry—where, except for the fact that they’re Jewish, the performers have nothing in common.
There’s always plenty of speech-making going on at these things, everyone congratulating each other and themselves for thinking of the idea. In one of those dead zones, I got a chance to talk to Naomi Less, who performs under the moniker Jewish Chicks Rock.
Now, rocking is the kind of thing that has to be earned. Rock stars may very well be made, not born, but it isn’t the kind of thing you declare. If you shout “ROCK AND ROLL!” at an audience and wave your electric guitar at them, you’d better have the chords to back it up.
Naomi Less, though, owns the right to declare herself rocking. Not by way of force or bombast: live, both times I’ve seen her, it’s just been her and an electric guitar. What she lacks in backup band, she makes up in style, poise, and big chords. Her guitar playing is very 1980s—with that prefabricated, jangle-pop, big-band sound—but it’s also very ’70s in that it’s full of guitar-solos and tension-climbing drama. Her “Responsibility” is like a Pretenders song in every sense: its incredibly catchy guitar riff, the staccato breakdown, and the positive-message sing-along chorus: “I won’t keep this to myself, there’s something I’m trying to make you see/I won’t run from my responsibility.“ “Mishuga’at” (the female form of meshugah, or crazy) is a song about friendships between girls and not caring about peer pressure. “One Simple Thing (Hashkieveinu)” is Less’s token lighters-in-the-air song—a slow-dance beat, the ambiguous is-it-a-crush-or-is-it-God chorus made famous by Christian rockers (“Please comfort me/can’t you see/you’re part of me”) that is a glowing cliché.
That’s the thing about Less, though. She writes songs like a teen novel: totally self-aware, and totally unapologetic about it. As she growls into the mic on “Responsibility, you can read between the lines of her lyrics: “I’m going to express myself, dammit.”
In fact, Less’s act doubles as the perfect teen program. She performs at synagogues and youth groups, playing music and talking about how (as per the recurring theme) girls rock. This might make Less sound like one of those cheesy roving Jewish educators with a Star of David t-shirt and an armful of sing-along Xeroxes, but the end result is somehow the opposite. Kids have a bullshit-meter with zero tolerance, and she passes every time.
Listen to “Mishuga’at” by Naomi Less
Over the years, Greg Wall, one of the main players in the jazz-klezmer ensemble Hasidic New Wave and a mainstay of the Lower East Side avant-garde scene, has grown more seriously interested in Jewish learning; at his last show, someone pointed him out and said, “Oh, you mean Rabbi Wall?” It wasn’t exaggeration; it was ordination.
One extension of Wall’s devotion is the new project Ha’Orot, in which he and Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein take the work of another rabbi-slash-artist and get all San Francisco-cafe on him—Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine. He was a kabbalist, a Lithuanian arbiter of Jewish law, and he was the author of Orot, a slim but dense volume of philosophy and theology. He also wrote some pretty kickin’ poems.
These days, Rav Kook is known more for his mystical teachings than his poetry, an omission that probably comes more from the poems’ esoteric nature than from a lack of quality. But Ha’Orot aims to change that. By placing his poems in a 1960s spoken-word context—crashing free-jazz piano, high-hat-intensive drums, words purred into the mic like Allen Ginsberg describing his latest otherworldly vision—Wall and Marmorstein recast Kook’s words in the context of a more contemporary poetry, effectively mirroring their religious journey in the other direction.
Not all of Ha’Orot’s catalogue comes from Rav Kook. Some lyrics are taken from psalms; others, one gets the feeling, are improvised or embellished on the spot. When Marmorstein first told me about the project, I asked him to send me a demo, and he was pretty firm with me: “You can’t get the essence of our project off a record. You have to see it.” Since then, though, the band announced a forthcoming full-length record on Tzadik. In the meantime, you can catch them live playing in synagogues around the West Village—just like Rav Kook would have wanted it.
Ha’Orot performing in New York City
A few months ago, the publicist at Numero Records asked me if I’d ever heard of this band Monotonix. “I don’t know if they’re up your alley, he told me, “but I just saw the weirdest band in the universe”and they’re Israelis.
Along with this note was a link to a YouTube video. Innocently, I clicked it, and what followed might have been the most intense two minutes that the computer at my temp job had ever seen—here, just watch it yourself:
Be sure not to miss the part where the audience is tearing apart the drummer’s drum kit, piece by piece, and he still manages to hit every beat.
Body Language, Monotonix’s six-song American debut, isn’t as chaotic as that, but it is equally unceasing in its aural assault—guitars out for blood, feedback cranked to 10. Yet it has moments of an almost cheesily feel-good buildup along the lines of old Elton John. The first song, “Lowest Dive,” opens with a repeated pounding of a snare drum in time with the strum of a drenched-in-feedback guitar. This simple sound fills the full first 30 seconds of the song, which then explodes into a fuzzy, lo-fi, catchy jam. “Dance for me/Oh, you should be dancing for me,” croons lead singer Ami Shalev, sounding like Alice in Chains by way of Tom Waits’ half-drunken nihilistic swagger. “Summers and Autumns” has all the angst of a good old-fashioned mosh pit song. “No Metal” takes familiar ’80s heavy-metal clichés—the long, loud guitar fadeout; the fast staccato vocals—and mixes it with a dance-floor sensibility and the sudden appearance of an organ in the middle. It’s bizarre and moody and, unexpectedly, loads of fun.
Listen to “Summers and Autumns” by Monotonix