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So Out It’s In

Two different brands of endearingly sentimental music

Unknown Author
December 31, 2008

Avi Fox-Rosen likes to identify himself as “anti-folk,” part of a movement most notable for its insistence on what it’s not—that is, the hokey and sincere “pro-folk” music that hails John Denver and Judy Collins as its lovable, naively optimistic icons. In some ways, however, Fox-Rosen’s music fits more comfortably

in the latter camp. His first solo effort, One, is stuffed tight with nostalgia and melancholy, and feels like a fuzzy sweater you could fall asleep in on a cold winter night. On the first song, “All I’d Like to Say,” Fox-Rosen sings, “I’d like to give you my heart but I can’t / It’s still beating in my chest and I need it for the time being,” his voice ballooning with emotion that’s more Motown soul than Matador irony; his guitar practically drips with the earnestness that’s boiled over from his voice.

Fox-Rosen’s voice is strongly reminiscent in both tone and emotional heft of Jeff Buckley, and in a genre where people often cite Bob Dylan as a vocal—not lyrical—influence, it’s not outlandish to imagine that some of his potential fanbase might be repelled Fox-Rosen’s perfect alto and polished-sounding sadness. Lyrically, he has his Dylan moments, waxing poetic about long and lonely streets and his place in the universe (“O Lord, I fear the truth will devour me / because we live in contradiction and sing out loud”), but then he’ll turn around and drop a straight cliché that lasts the length of a song, musing on girls and crushes and the intimated romance of crushes. “If I could I would cage you in a palace,” he sings on “Man,” “If I could I would break these chains of my mind.”

“Jerusalem,” the penultimate song, is the album’s cornerstone; a mission statement that unites Fox-Rosen’s elegant existential soliloquies with his emo-esque relationship reveries. At moments, it seems he could be referring to a lover, but it turns out he’s talking about the anthropomorphized city itself: “Out of the ashes, you rise up from the dead / your bridal gown’s in tatters, your long dry tears a river of dust.”

Although One was Fox-Rosen’s main project of 2008, he also fronts a four-piece bluegrass band, the Frozen String Quartet, which released a self-titled album this year. A collection of quaint, mellow originals and odd covers (a laid-back country rendition of “Summer in the City,” for one), the album is like a window into Fox-Rosen’s influences, including Fairport Convention and Lyle Lovett, and is more lighthearted and fun than One.

But Fox-Rosen’s newest work, a one-off cover of Santogold’s top-40 single “Creator,” might be his most complex yet. He trades in the tortured-poet uber-emotiveness for David Byrne–like gymnastics; the rhythm track plays a manic game of “duck, duck, goose,” jumping from different percussion instruments to a bowed bass to Fox-Rosen’s own wry vocals. Flighty and sexy, his “Creator” serves as a knowing wink to the people who heard his first album and will inevitably gawk at this out-of-left-field cover, but it may also be a hint of what’s to come from the musician. Coming from him, the line, “The rules I break got me a place / Up on the radar”—written by Santogold, appropriated by Fox-Rosen—is either mightily egotistical or massively spiritual; sure, he is heralding his bravado, but when set beside the testimony of “Jerusalem,” the song almost seems like an attempt to embody God’s own voice. This indicates a less introspective, more self-aware state of mind for Fox-Rosen—he is making fun of his own seriousness without entirely giving it up.

Today, Yiddish versions of popular songs have been condemned to the pop-cultural bargain bin—email forwards and hammy YouTube videos.

But once upon a time, the Barry Sisters fused the Jewish language with then-popular music (songs by Frank Sinatra, Burt Bacharach, and Perry Como), creating covers that, at worst, were convincingly swinging versions of the originals and, at best, reinterpreted the lyrics to songs like “Cabaret” (“Put down the knitting / The book and the broom / Time for a holiday / Life is a cabaret, old chum / Come to the Cabaret”), providing a fresh and distinctive take. Now, thirty-five years later, label Reboot Stereophonic is reissuing their album Our Way (Tahka-Tahka) as part of an ongoing revival of milestone recordings in Jewish culture.

The music drips with so much sap and sentiment that it’s practically sweating. It begs for a backdrop of dancers in shiny polyester dresses, men in tweed suits, and mixed drinks named after once-famous celebrities. The Sisters captured the self-conscious glamour of the era in such a smart way that it almost seems like they planned for this kind of revival (which extends beyond the rerelease to include such tribute bands as the Sisters of Sheynville).

In hindsight (something many artists wish they had while churning out their holiday albums and grandparent-ready gift books), the Barry Sisters did a remarkable job of picking songs with staying power. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” played totally straight, is kooky and enjoyable. The showy but stylish twists in their voices as they launch into their full-throttle, Jewish-woman-empowering version of “My Way” feel like a seductive wink at the listener.

The difference between old-time borscht-belt acts and the new crop of irony-laden Jewish comedians, a friend of my grandmother’s told me, is that the old guys, even when their jokes fell flat, still seemed like they were putting in the effort to be funny. True to form, the Barry Sisters are unapologetically kitschy, from their photo sessions in the extensive liner notes (both the original and an expanded version are included with the reissue) to the loungetastic feel of the songs. But theirs is a finely-tuned, ageless kitsch—here’s hoping it sticks around this time.

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