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Peri Smilow

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Review: Blessings – Peri Smilow by Adrian Durlester, havanashira.blogspot.com

March 02, 2010

Some years back, just about the same time as the Hava Nashira songleading Workshops at OSRUI started in 1992, a bright star burst upon the contemporary Jewish liturgical music scene in the person of Peri Smilow and her album "Songs of Peace." Peri's golden voice and tasteful production values gave a series of familiar and new songs on the theme of peace a pleasant new presentation. Her next album, Ashrey, in 1997, featured the hit song of the same name, the powerful "Song for America, " along with one of my personal favorites, a new setting of "Ha Lachma Anya." Keeping with her 5-year cycle between releases, Peri next gave us "The Freedom Music Project" in 2002. This groundbreaking album features songs of Passover and Civil Rights, sung and backed by a vibrant young choir of Jewish and African-American voices. It's on my "must have" list of albums, and if you don't have a copy, rush right out and get one (or download it!)

Life sometimes intervenes, and Peri couldn't keep to her 5-year cycle for her latest release, but it was well worth the wait. It's so wonderful to hear Peri's golden voice again. This new CD features 8 new songs by Peri, a new setting of the Havdallah Blessings by a young Russian-Jewish-Israeli songwriter, along with two covers, "When I'm Gone" by Phil Ochs, and Janis Ian's "Joy."

Do I like this new album from Peri, and can I recommend it? The answer is an enthusiastic yes! . . . Everything gels and comes together to create a top-notch production. Every element is superb - songwriting, singing, arrangements, backup, studio production and mastering, etc. Everything on this album is in balance. That's why I like it so much. Every song on the album is a great listen, and many are fun to sing, too!

It’s hard to miss when you’ve got Grammy-winning producer Ben Wisch on your project. Add to that world-class bass player Tony Levin, and the talented Elana Arian singing backup vocals, and you can see why this project came together at a top level, with production values as good as any typical high-end Indie album.

Peri starts off with a new setting of Psalm 96's "Shiru L'Adonai." Peri describes it as an instant camp creation, and it would certainly be fun to sing at camp (or services, or wherever.) Peri's liner notes report that just hours after writing and teaching it at camp, it was "performed by the very choir that inspired it." I particularly like the song's bridge, and think it's a great arrangement with superb production values.

The next song is the extremely powerful and emotional "Carry On." Peri's own life's journey has had it challenges, and this song speaks of the inspiration she received from relatives and friends along her own path to healing. For a song with such powerful lyrics, the presentation remains, even when it builds a bit near the end, somewhat understated . . . It's a truly inspiring song, by a gifted songwriter and great singer.

Peri also presents us with new settings of "Nishmat Kol Chai" and "Ma'ariv Aravim" which are both pretty and pleasant; a "Priestly Blessing" that is truly beautiful, and a "Gomeil," the traditional prayer of one who survives a life-threatening situation, that is truly inspiring and uplifting. Peri's sweet voice graces these solid arrangements with tasteful instrumental and vocal backup. At once truly personal and majestic, Peri's "Gomeil" features a wonderful backup choir . . . and is a piece that I hope begins to find wide use in the community, because it can work equally well, as it does on the album, in both a small, intimate way, and in a more glorious communal manner.

Peri also gives us two songs from a more feminist (and I don't mean that pejoratively) perspective. The first is the beautiful "Hineini" which is based on kavanot used at the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh. The second is the piece she was commissioned to write by the Women of Reform Judaism in celebration of the publication of "The Torah: A Woman's Commentary." This milestone event is well served by Peri's "We Were There Too." It's a fun song, with an infectious beat, and with just enough of a touch of jazzy, bluesy, gypsy, and other musical turns and twists to make it not-so-easy-to-classify the genre.

Peri was enthused with the music of the young Russian emigre to Israel Evgeny Leshenko. So much so that she recorded his setting of the Havdallah Blessings for this project, in hopes of introducing his music to the American Jewish community. It's a pleasant enough setting, and I do hope it finds some use (and I am sure it will) in congregations and camps.

Finally, Peri presents two covers. The first is of Phil Och's "When I'm Gone." The arrangement is tight, and Peri's voice lends a new clarity and beauty to Phil's lyrics. Peri's take is somewhat laid back, and thus lacks urgency that's present in and drives the song's original incarnation. No matter, for Peri manages to deliver the same message in her own unique way.

The album ends with a cover of Janis Ian's "Joy." Peri manages to make this song her own, especially with the expert keyboard stylings of Josh Neslon in place of the guitar of the original recording. I do miss those few seconds of chorus that set apart the word "joy" on the original, nevertheless, Peri's version manages to get inside me just as Janis Ian's did.

In keeping with her penchant for working across boundaries, in “Gomeil” Peri’s backup singers are all from the Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, NJ. As I stated earlier, what makes this album work so well is that...well, everything works so well, and is top notch . . . In summary, "Blessings" is worthy addition to your collection of Jewish music. Let's hope "Blessings" is not the last we hear from Peri, because she, and her music truly are as the title says.

--  Adrian Durlester,  Havanashira.blogspot.com


updated: 3 years ago