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Published: 2006/03/15
by Jeremy Sanchez

Youth – Matisyahu

Sony/Epic 695

Matisyahu — the self-proclaimed Hasidic reggae superstar — was almost unknown as of a year ago. An appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Bonnaroo 2005 and, look out, he’s everywhere! Anyone thinking they had found a new secret outside the realm of mass-market music couldn’t have foreseen the extreme surge in popularity he’s received, at least not that it would come on so strong or fast.

Now that Youth, Matisyahu’s highly anticipated and promotion-logged sophomore studio album, has hit the shelves does the spin hold up to the anticipation that was placed on it? To be blunt, Youth is a going to be extra popular among the population that thinks Bob Marley was the start and end of reggae, and will definitely win some big industry awards this year. Among the more traditional reggae circles, we’ll just have to see where Matisyahu is headed. For now, as a handful of tracks from Live at Stubb’s receive a studio polishing, while smatterings of pop culture have invaded the Jewish reggae singer’s work.

Youth has a more diverse sound than Matisyahu’s debut, Shake off the DustArise, but some of Matisyahu’s originality feels filtered in the shift. Matisyahu’s voice is still distinct, the same goes for most of his deliveries, but the musical discourse wanders all over the place rather than finding a focus. It is necessary to note that one of Matisyahu’s most distinct attributes — his adherence to, and drive to spread, the message of Hasidic Judaism — is still the focus of his lyrics. Here, he breaks from most reggae musicians and singers, for example, who would openly proclaim that ganja is their sacrament. Matisyahu was recently quoted in Blender as saying, “The Torah says not to damage yourself, so I abstain from marijuana.”

Given his old material, a few of the tracks on Youth just sound unlike him. “Time of Your Song” contains a studio-pop sound doomed for TRL and will probably prosper. “Indestructible” is another veer far from the raw sound of Matisyahu’s debut and the acoustic guitar driven sing-a-long “What I’m Waiting for” sounds like another potential MTV show soundtrack (not considering the topical mentions of Abraham and such). On the other hand, “Ancient Lullaby” features some strong musical tangents that recall String Cheese Incident. It should also be heard for the drum solo, making for my favorite track on the entire disc. Change can also be good, as long as it’s not forced.

Most of the tracks are top shelf and deserve the company of his past releases. Some of the best are the title track (showing off some of the band’s rock chops), “Dispatch the Troops,” “Jerusalem,” "Unique is my Dove” (with a dubwise approach), and "King Without a Crown" (a hit from Live at Stubb’s). All have a strong reggae base while exploring the band’s knowledge of other styles, like rock, funk and hip-hop (Matisyahu is quite the live beatboxer).

With the backing this band has, it’ll be hard to fail. Produced by legendary bassist Bill Laswell, the disc also has a necessary dub EP, released simultaneously. Though Youth still contains the band of JDub record ("not-for-profit record and a event production company for innovative Jewish music and cross-cultural dialogue"), Matisyahu now has the mighty backing of Sony behind him, with all the predictable promotions, too. As Youth hits the street and airwaves, it might be a good time for a look back at Matisyahu’s other material, and hope he comes through the other side of the FM looking glass.

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