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Indescribably Weird: Sam Glaser’s Rockin’ Chanukah Revue

For some reason this year has produced a bumper crop of Hanukkah-themed CDs. Why? And are any of them any good? We got young adult novelist Matthue Roth to investigate. Check back all week for more reviews. Under consideration today: … Read More

By / December 5, 2007

For some reason this year has produced a bumper crop of Hanukkah-themed CDs. Why? And are any of them any good? We got young adult novelist Matthue Roth to investigate. Check back all week for more reviews.

Under consideration today: Sam Glaser's Rockin' Chanukah Revue 

I know that we stick by Hillel's method of lighting the menorah, starting with one small light and working our way up to a full set of eight, but I don't want to start my week off weak, wallowing in short E.P.s or a tepid, barely-cognizant hipster doozy of a Chanukah album, so I'm just going to jump in full-throttle: the 15-track Sam Glaser's Rockin' Chanukah Revue.

First, the artist. Sam Glaser is a Jewish musician, serious and soulful–"I have all his CDs," claims no less than Kirk Douglas in the press kit-whose usual instrument of choice, a keyboard, is tender and maudlin. In his publicity photos, he alternates between a distinguished synagogue stud and the "wacky guy" in the Bar Mitzvah band.

Second, the album artwork. Underneath the title, written in big Broadway-lights letters, is a pixilated photo of Glaser, who has ditched his very mellow and very trademarked keyboard for a rockin' electric guitar. The picture is taken from behind, with Glaser's body obviously reeling from an intense electric-guitar strum. Wow! You'd better buckle your safety belts…this Chanukah revue is going to rock.

And the thing is: from the album's first few notes-a wah-wah electric guitar, slightly tense, slightly warbly, building in the corner-something is definitely about to explode. In the background, slight drumrolls, a sign of the impending madness. Then the drums kick in, the brass picks up, and ….the song breaks out to John Philip Sousa-influenced soft jazz?

Look: I know how you probably feel about soft jazz. I also know how you're probably going to feel about Glaser's voice, which is comfortable and well-trained, yet has an air of self-importance that never totally goes away. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he's channeling Frank Sinatra-or, to be more fair (and more accurate) that he's channeling Dean Martin.

"We Light the Lights" breaks out of this meandering into a pretty solid, fist-pumping Chanukah singalong anthem. It's got just the right amount of cheese: the horn section is straight out of a Jewish wedding band, and I don't know how else to describe it. Lines like "The dark doesn't hold a candle to our prayers" can be either heartwarming or hackneyed, and are quite possibly both. But the song's musical progression, from "More Than a Feeling" to Rat Pack to Diana Ross and the Supremes-like choral arrangements, is almost dizzyingly fascinating. And when Glaser and his backing singers kick into the repeating chorus, "We light!", we really feel a surge of honest joy.

And that, my friends, is just the first track.

From here, I don't know if I can describe the scope, the wackiness, and the sheer unpredictability of Rockin' Chanukah Revue. Can I just tell you, the second song is called "Dreidl Star!" and is a tribute to (I don't even want to call it a parody; it's too honest for that) the Deep Purple song. "Nobody gonna take my dreidel/it'll never hit the ground/Nobody gonna beat my dreidel/It'll break the speed of sound." I don't know if it's all Glaser's work directed at the overcaffeinated 8-to-12-year-old set, but he says the word, and all manner of rawk comes into the room. His oh-so-tasteful voice floats above it, paradoxically, but there's actually a fair amount of unhingedness, especially around the guitar breakdowns.

And then, just when "Dreidel Star!"'s last screaming banshee of a guitar fades to black and you think you can't handle any more adrenaline, soft piano chords come up. You recognize this song. You don't think he's going to do it. And then he does it.

"Maccabee, Maccabee/burning bright, eternally," he croons.

And no matter how bitter, jaded and ironic the outside world might get, Sam Glaser keeps it bright. Bright, shining, and Chanukah fresh: and why was there debate over whether the single flask of oil lasted for eight days, anyway? Let's just sit on our irony, stop biting our tongues, and bite some latkes instead. When Sam Glaser sings, whether it's "Maoz Tsure" or a Jewish version of the Mother Mary panegyric "Let It Be," let's believe him.

Not all of the songs on Rockin' Chanukah Revue are parodies-"We Light the Lights," for example, is pure Glaser innovation. But those in search of the conventional Rock will be treated well: in addition to Deep Purple, Glaser pays homage to Smokey Robinson, Van Halen, and whoever wrote "Maoz Tsur" (a poet only known by the name Mordechai, according to the acrostic, if you're wondering). There's also the bizarrely appropriate "My Sukkah's on Fire," and a musical version of the blessings over the candles. If you're going to only buy one CD for Chanukah, you might not make it this one. But you'd be missing out.

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