Heavy Shtetl (www.olam.ca)
Deryk Houston's cover illustration for this debut recording by Vancouver-based Olam, sort of Marc Chagall by way of Peter Max, announces the band's aggressive yet amiable patchwork of musical styles, their considerable constructive assimilation accompanied by a few jarring juxtapositions. Klezmer-oriented instrumentation is flawless, while Sylvia Zaradic's bright vocals are if anything too good, too precise, artifacts of a Broadway musical or a commercial. Lyricist Kico Gonzalez-Risso's liner notes are an additional asset, both engagingly clever and interpretive of this often challenging music.
"Old Merengue," on which the core combo is joined by a brass section, illustrates Olam's seamless transitions between Latin and Ashkenazi Jewish styles, especially on an instrumental bridge that starts with a stuttery Klezmer beat before developing the same figure as salsa. Dense, shuffling percussion, booming bass, and serpents swaying to sinuous accordion characterize "Carnations," a Bosnian love song in which Zaradic uses that perfect voice to echo the lead accordion figure. In "Ode to Ivo," an instrumental tribute to Ivo Papisov, a meandering clarinet intro erupts into a dizzying 7/4 (4-3) dance, the wild clarinet solo expected, the jazzy guitar break a pleasant surprise. Just when you think they've got to be kidding, you realize that the mixture of upbeat rap with the most recognizable of Hebrew melodies in "Hava Nagila ('98 Mix)" is actually lotsa fun, a lighthearted exploration of the techno Semitic tradition pioneered by Natacha Atlas. The dramatic highpoint is "Cigarettes," Zaradic's agonized vocal of despair suggesting a Brecht-Weil musical composed in Argentine exile, the sudden arrival of Bahian carnival percussion and festive flute undermining the pathos but providing an upbeat end. Olam may push the eclectic envelope on Foreign Dreams, but the upshot is a bigger envelope, not confetti. - Jim Foley
"Come Next year composed Manor/Hirsh/Gonzalez-Risso
© 1999 Olam, used by permission
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