Music Review: “Lev Tahor 5” (LTV)
In Shabbos 21b, the Talmud introduces the idea that there is something special about girsa diyankusa, the things we learn when we are young. Commenting on that passage, Rashi explains that girsa diyankusa lasts better than the things we learn when we are older. The typical understanding of that Talmudic passage follows that implied line of thinking: for whatever reason, we remember the things we learn in our youth better than information we acquire later in life.
Rav Kook takes a broader approach in expounding this idea. He writes about the important role that our younger years play in the formation of our personalities. For Rav Kook, the years of our youth are the years we should spend absorbing experiences and knowledge that we can synthesize and use to develop into the people we become as we get older. Generally, children are more open and imaginative than adults, and as such, the things we encounter when we are young powerfully impact who we are as adults.
If you’re the age of an average YU undergrad and you grew up listening to Jewish music, there’s a good chance that Lev Tahor was a big part of your childhood. Their albums came out when we were in elementary school and stayed popular through our high school years (and even later). Lev Tahor was the perfect mix of exciting and spiritually elevating; they captivated us and we became super-fans. Their original songs and acapella arrangements dominated our kumzitzes and jam sessions and we spent hours trying to outdo each other with our best “Schwebel voices.”
The best Jewish music should uplift us, as the singers and the listeners join together, their hearts unified in praising and calling out to their Creator. For many of us, Lev Tahor was an important part of the earliest years we spent forming our religious personalities. The way that we relate to spirituality, to song, and to prayer bears the indelible touch of the music of Lev Tahor.
Lev Tahor took the Jewish world by storm in 2001 with its first album, a collection of acapella renditions of Jewish classics that remains popular to this day. The acapella arrangements featured on albums 1 and 3 have become staples of any yeshiva or camp kumzitz. Their second album produced a distinctive Lev Tahor sound and a number of original songs that further solidified their popularity. By 2006, they had released four albums.
Lev Tahor’s three core members are Gadi Fuchs, Eli Schwebel, and Ari Cukier. Promotional materials for their new album announce that these lifelong best friends have been singing together for more than 30 years (since they were five-year old buddies in Brooklyn’s Torah Temimah). As detailed in feature articles through the years, when the friends went to learn in Israel, their zemiros skills made them popular Shabbos guests (I imagine it was like experiencing their song “Shabbos in Gilo” in real life), and the albums seem to have grown out of that.
The group has been mostly inactive since the release of Lev Tahor 4. Eli Schwebel kept singing in the interim, releasing a solo album in 2014 whose sound was very different from Lev Tahor’s music, but we haven’t heard much from the others. Understandably, then, when Lev Tahor announced that they’d be releasing a new album, their legions of fans were filled with excited anticipation.
The album was finally released in late February (in honor of Adar) after the group spent two years putting it together. In advance of the release, Lev Tahor promoted the album heavily on social media, made some rare concert appearances, and revamped their website (levtahor.com), which is back up and running after a few years off the web.
The new Lev Tahor 5 – which is available in stores, on mostlymusic.com, and on iTunes (on iTunes, be sure to search for “LTV” – otherwise you won’t find it) – has been an instant success. The distributor had to order a new batch of physical CDs just days after the release, and the album spent a good bit of time in the #1 spot on the “World” charts on iTunes.
There is good reason for LTV’s success. The new album is exciting, it features a diverse range of songs, and it’s a good, manageable size (12 tracks running just 46 minutes). Their voices sound as good as ever and it’s a pleasure to hear them singing together again. In recent interviews, the trio have gushed about how much fun they had making the album, boasting that they didn’t have a single fight during those two years. And the fun comes out in the music.
Longtime fans should be forewarned, however, that this is not quite the Lev Tahor they’re used to. The singers are now adults with careers, not the yeshiva guys they were when they first got started; this is readily apparent in the sound on this album, their recent interviews and appearances, their new website, and their social media profiles. Don’t expect to hear any covers of old-time Jewish classics or to discover future kumzitz/kaddish staples à la “Im Eshkachech” (from LT2). Some might object to this album for sounding less “Jewish” than the group’s previous work. My personal advice? Give it a few listens and it’ll grow on you. (I’m on about 30 and I’m loving it.)
When listening to LTV, it becomes apparent that the group members have vastly broadened their musical horizons in their decade away from recording. There are three particular songs on the album that are unlike anything we’ve ever heard from Lev Tahor or Eli Schwebel.
One of these is the album’s very first song. LTV opens with one of its finest numbers: “Halellu,” a catchy tune that will have you up out of your seat dancing along. “Halellu” started as a cover of “Holiday Road,” a 1983 song by Lindsey Buckingham. Buckingham’s song had a Beach Boys sound that is preserved in “Halellu”’s chorus, and Eli Schwebel updated it, fusing a unique blend of sounds and styles. First, he adds music (instrumentals and verses) that is reminiscent of Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.” Then, we get a bridge – provided (according to Lev Tahor’s social media) by “the Sephardic Boys Choir led by Jack Braha” – that evokes the choral chants used in Disney songs that draw on non-Western music (think the soundtracks of The Lion King, Moana, or Lilo & Stitch).
“Simchas Beis Hashoeva” features Lipa, and it’s a classic Lipa party song. “Shoovi L’yerushalayim” is a nicely arranged tune, half of which is in the style of old American Jewish folk songs and half of which is a beautiful harmonic rendition of the classic tune for one of the best-known kinos in the Tisha B’av liturgy.
A number of Jewish publications have profiled Eli Schwebel in recent years, especially around the time of the release of his solo album, Hearts Mind. Those profiles focused heavily on Eli’s spiritual journey of self-discovery, a journey that has taken many years and which permeated all of his work on Hearts Mind.
On LTV, Eli is back with his buddies, and just like on the earlier Lev Tahor albums, all three members are essential and contribute significantly to the group’s sound. And as always, this album showcases the trio's remarkable knack for sensing which of the guys would sound best singing which parts of the songs. Notwithstanding all that, however, Eli Schwebel has always stood out somewhat in the group’s music.
This is certainly true with respect to his voice. Five Towns Jewish Times editor-publisher Larry Gordon captured the thoughts of many when, in a piece on Eli Schwebel, he referred to Eli’s voice as something like “a magical musical instrument.”
By the way – Schwebel fans get a special treat on this album, as Eli’s father Rivie makes a long-overdue appearance. Eli’s voice is certainly distinctive, but it’s not unique – it is strikingly similar to the voice of his father Rivie, who was a member of Dveykus, one of the foundational modern Jewish music groups. Rivie guest-stars on the vaguely Sephardic “Dror Yikra,” and his vocals steal the show.
Eli’s impact on Lev Tahor goes far beyond the sound, however. A major creative force involved in every stage of the music from composition through production, his solo work in Hearts Mind leaves its stamp on LTV in the form of three songs, two of which are actually re-worked versions of songs from his solo album.
The catchy “Yagga,” which was arguably the best-known song on Hearts Mind (it was originally released as a free single and it has an official music video), receives the Lev Tahor acapella treatment with the kind of typically excellent arrangement that was the hallmark of so much of their earlier work. LTV also features a heartfelt and hopeful remix of “Don’t Stop Giving” that sounds like it belongs on Phil Collins’s Tarzan soundtrack and features a synthesized beat that could have come right out of a ’90s pop song.
The album’s third track, “Gam Zu L’tova,” is an original tune in the theme and style of Eli’s journey as expressed in Hearts Mind. Anyone bothered on a religious level by the perception that “Yagga” shifts the emphasis too far away from Torah study can take comfort in “Gam Zu L’tova,” whose tune beautifully captures the spirit of the Talmudic expression from which it takes its name (Eli Schwebel and Ari Cukier described this in a recent interview with Nachum Segal). The song traces the experience of someone going through a rough time who utilizes the power of positive thinking to lift him out of his sadness; the song’s spirit picks up as this person’s mood improves. When we hit the first chorus, which proclaims that “this too will be for the best,” the slow guitar that conveyed the doldrums in the first verse is replaced by synthesized instruments and a choral background accompaniment. The music in the second verse is more upbeat, and that trend continues through the rest of the song, as the second chorus features choral background singing that’s even more exuberant, followed by a pumping beat.
Longtime Lev Tahor enthusiasts need not despair after hearing about all these new and unfamiliar sounds – LTV also features four songs in the mold of the group’s greatest hits. Fans love discussing which original song is their favorite – “Aneini” vs. “Refaeinu” is a classic debate – and these four are sure to find their way into those conversations. It can’t be a coincidence that Gadi Fuchs – the most musically conservative of the group, according to Ari and Eli – composed all four of these songs: “Lecha Dodi,” “Birchas Hachodesh,” “Avdecha,” and “Meheira” (Eli Schwebel was a co-composer of “Avdecha”). Each of these stirring songs epitomizes the classic Lev Tahor sound exemplified by the hits from the second album. I can’t wait for “Meheira” – which even features a Shalsheles-style opening – to become a hit at weddings. I suspect that many listeners will find that the hauntingly beautiful “Avdecha” is their favorite track on the album; I know I can’t stop listening to it.
Those who particularly enjoyed the English songs on the earlier Lev Tahor albums (which were often covers of old Abie Rottenberg/Journeys songs) might be drawn to “Mr. Tanner,” a cover of a 1974 Harry Chapin song by that name that Schwebel explicitly re-worked to give it more of the Abie/Journeys feel. Be prepared, though – the song is emotionally moving, but it’s not a dramatic, high-stakes number like “Watch Over Me” or “Deaf Man in the Shteeble” and it’s no more “Jewish” than Chapin’s original.
It’s great to have Lev Tahor back in our lives giving us some new work to enjoy. This album may be different from what we’re used to, but it’s a pleasure to hear their voices again. LTV represents a new step in the trio’s musical maturation and a worthy addition to their audio library. Newcomers and Lev Tahor lifers alike can look forward to many hours of enjoyment from this wonderful new album. Here’s hoping that this time, we won’t have to wait eleven more years to hear what the group is up to.