Saturday, August 25, 2007

Yeshiva of Rock

Four years ago, I received a burned CD copy of an unreleased album. Hastily written on the disc in black marker was the band’s name, The Marcus Brothers. The CD contained an album-worth of explicitly Orthodox rock. It was something of an underground Chabad secret, the group’s core members two real-life brothers, one of them a Lubavitcher emissary in California.

The pair (occasionally joined by four other brothers singing back-up) eventually re-formed as The 8th Day and last month released their second album, “Brooklyn.” The record is something rare in the burgeoning business of frum rock. Instead of marketing a collection of revved-up wedding songs, The 8th Day takes its cues from contemporary popular music, from the dirge-like post-grunge of “C.D.S.G.” (Chassidim Don’t Say Goodbye) to the reggae-rock of “Wake Up.”

“Brooklyn” lacks some of the under-produced charm of that first bootleg, but it contains enough of its own to make it worthwhile. Foremost among its charms is the band’s melding of Hasidic pop and rock sounds. (Try finding another band that sings about bubbes with guitars grinding in the background.)

The 8th Day is at once yeshiva-oriented and musically up-to-date. Other ultra-Orthodox musicians tend to either be trapped in a liturgical-inspired genre (such as well-known Hasidic musician Avraham Fried, who happens to be the Marcus brothers’ uncle) or sacrifice the motifs of Hasidic culture for mass appeal (Matisyahu).

The 8th Day alternates its lyrics between English, Hebrew and Yiddish. This musical melting pot is what makes songs like “C.D.S.G” — with its soaring English-language chorus punctuated by a rat-a-tat-tat hip-hop delivery in Yiddish — so interesting. Unfortunately, the band’s English lyrics too often tend toward weakly formulated clichés (“The hearts are broken, how can you shatter a dream?” on “Broken Hearts”). Nevertheless, “Brooklyn” is an album well worth examining — at the very least to see the enormous influence that modern rock is exerting on a new generation of Hasidic musicians.

You can listen to “C.N.S.G.” and title track “Brooklyn” on The 8th Day’s MySpace page. See The 8th Day playing “Yarmulke Blues” here.

Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and the New York Press.

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