Swimming in Music

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Okay, my new music column is up — which discusses the infamous “Bart & the Hasidim” episode of “The Simpsons,” among other things — but, as a warning, I’m going to go on about the Sway Machinery again.

First, though, Pink Noise, the opening band. Because singing always sounds better in ESL, and nobody does English as a Second Language better than Israelis. And a screaming Israeli woman? You don’t get better than this stuff. A four-piece band, Israeli-born, New York-based, when they climbed onstage, each one of them seemed like their own Israeli expatriate stereotype — one guitarist was bald and buff; the other, Itamar from Balkan Beat Box, personable and shaggy like a dog; the drummer, tightly-composed and withdrawn; and the singer, whose hair was like a wild weeping willow tree and whose mouth could open wider than her head.

pink noise

The first two songs were very sleepy, very cerebral, sounding kind of like Julee Cruise’s backing band at the bar in Twin Peaks. And then, all of a sudden, the singer started playing heavy-metal riffs on her bass, and the rest of the band was trying to keep up, and she was yelling freaky war whoops into the microphone, adapting English words for the purposes of the song that sounded almost-correct-but-not-quite, like a love song called “Ailment.” (At least, I think it was called “Ailment.”)

They blasted through most of an hour’s set in the same fashion — a short, quiet song, and then they’d rock our heads off. And just when we were finished being surprised, they got off the stage and let the headliners on.

Just in case you missed my chat with singer/guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood around Rosh Hashana, when he performed (literally) a service to a sold-out audience of about 3000, the Sway Machinery is this project wherein Lockwood researches and resurrects old, sometimes obscure, often haunting and consistently mind-blowing cantorial melodies. And he performs like a man possessed, moving in jerky, premeditated, swaying movements, as though he’s only partially in charge of what his body’s doing.

But last night was a whole new level of possessed-ness. I’ve never seen him in action with a full brass section before, and it makes such a difference. It seems like it should be lopsided — a band with a guitar, a drummer, and three horns — but they don’t sound that way at all, like a gospel choir with a ton of voices and just an organ. Jeremiah’s voice and the brass makes an excellent call-and-response, and lest you’ve never heard nigun, you can see the immense power of a wordless melody belted out with little else but the sheer power of religious devotion.

And, if Jeremiah and co. don’t happen to be touring near you, you can run to their music page to learn more…or, of course, there’s this website with surprisingly good resources on niguns.

Posted on December 5, 2008

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